The Right Way to Pinch and Prune Raspberries

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Red raspberries

Like most garden writers, early on in my career I often repeated advice given by experienced experts on topics I didn’t know much about myself. Years later, there is quite a bit of advice I’d like to take back, for example this old song on pruning raspberries:

"Remove old canes after they have fruited by cutting them off at the soil line."

This sounds good, and I accepted the logic that the dying canes would harbour diseases, so we had better get them out of there. Fast forward a few years, during which I repeatedly tried and failed to follow my own advice. Crawling around on the ground with pruning shears hoping I cut the right canes, and then pulling out the thorny things was hazardous duty, for me and the new green canes that would bear next year’s raspberry crop.

New raspberry cane

Pruning Summer-fruiting Raspberries

My raspberry pruning was doing more harm than good and I was having no fun at all, so I changed my ways and started waiting until winter to lop out the old canes, which had gone grey with age so they were easy to spot. Winter revealed another hidden truth: The old canes provide support for the new ones, so pulling them out in summer deprives the plants of their fundamental growth habit. Meanwhile, horticulturalists began suggesting that dying bramble canes send leftover carbohydrates back to the roots, and you wouldn’t want to shortcut that process. The new advice for pruning raspberries goes like this:

"Remove old canes in late winter by cutting them into pieces with pruning loppers."

My next mistake was leaving out something important – thinning the new canes when they come up in spring. The new canes are growing with a vengeance by the time you are picking raspberries, and there are usually too many of them. Pulling out about a third of the new canes – especially the earliest ones – keeps fresh air circulating around the ripening raspberries, and invites the canes that are allowed to grow to become husky and cold-hardy.

Tip-pruning Raspberries

Speaking of cold, the next bit of advice I need to recall is this:

"Wait until early spring to tip-prune raspberries, because until then you do not know the extent of winter injury to the canes."

Raspberry lateral branch

At the time I wrote this, I had not yet met black raspberries (Rubus occidentalis) or the purple strains created by crossing them with red raspberries (for example, the ‘Royalty’ and ‘Brandywine’ varieties). These big, vigorous brambles will only grow into heavy-bearing bushes if they are tip-pruned in summer by cutting off tips of the new canes when they are about head high. Pruning raspberries this way forces secondary or lateral branches to grow from nodes along the stem. In my experience, the berries from these lateral branches are bigger and easier to pick than those from plants that receive no discipline until spring. Sometimes winter cold nips them back, but some winter injury is to be expected when winter temperatures drop below about -5°F (-20°C).

Pruning Autumn-Bearing Raspberries

As for tip-pruning autumn-bearing raspberries, I think each gardener must come to an understanding with the variety under their care. Ideally, you want the berries to ripen while the weather is still warm, because warm sunshine makes raspberries taste better, but you don’t want them coming in so early that the fruit gets scalded by summer sun.

Pinching the new canes at eye level delays fruiting of fall-bearing raspberries by about three weeks and forces the development of lateral branches, so it is a very sound practice in warm climates where you want raspberries to wait out the hottest part of summer before they bloom and set fruit. But in cool climates where you want fall raspberries as quickly as possible, it is best to leave the terminal buds intact.

Home Grown Raspberry Leaf Tea

Raspberry leaf tea

All of this raspberry pruning can net you a garden crop I’ve failed to cover in previous writings, which is raspberry leaf tea. Raspberry leaves contain more tannins than other common tea herbs, so they add body to herb teas made of mixed, dried herbs from the garden.

By itself, raspberry leaf tea is widely recommended as a tonic for severe menstrual cramps or even the pain of childbirth. There are no widely accepted studies to back this up, but the health industry is generally not interested in helping people grow drugs in their back yards. I like the flavour of raspberry leaf tea, but if you don’t you can always put it on your face. Some cosmetics researchers think a little raspberry leaf extract added to skin creams might prevent help wrinkles.

Barbara Pleasant

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Comments

 
"so where are the actual instructions on HOW to prune raspberries? i planted a bush last october, it was a foot tall. over winter it grew to be 6 feet tall, i had a handful of berries in march. i cut off big unruly branches, to keep the bush at my eye level, about 5 ft height. some of the branches grew back, i try to keep it bushy, not tree like. but 1 handful of berries doesn't seem like much of a harvest. how do i make yields bigger? i am in southwest florida, so no winter here. i have the variety suitable for usda 10. when in the year and where (which part of branch) should i prune? thank you."
olga on Wednesday 22 July 2015
"Olga, in your climate your only hope is to grow fall-bearing raspberries. Cut them to the ground in winter, and they bear on new growth the next year."
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 24 July 2015
"I plan to plant raspberries as soon as the recommended proper time arrives in my area (8a), Dallas, TX. I read this page on pruning, but as a first "raspberrier", I am reluctant to say " I know what I am doing." So, with that said, exactly what type of raspberry cane(?) are recommended in my hotter'n Hell Summer temps region? I also plan to have blackberries. I noticed in the picture of what be the dormant raspberry area, I didn't see supports for the plants. Are they not needed, or were they already removed? I like the cement pad walkways in between the rows, also, the fence around the "patch". I'll add those items to my to do list. So, again, what species do I need and do I need supports, and for the preferred species, how and when do I prune? I apologize for being so dense. I have a severe mental disorder and some things, I actually have to have a picture drawn for me to understand."
charley on Thursday 22 October 2015
"I have "ever bearing" red raspberry bushes. I get several handfuls in the spring and a bit more than that in the fall, but not enough at any time to make jam.pies or cobbler; really just enough to snack on it add to yogurt. This year is my 3rd with these bushes which were transplants from a neighbor. I have tried pruning them all to the soil line, I have tried pruning only the old canes and I always thin in the spring because I want to prevent overcrowding. Am I doing something wrong that prevents a large yield?"
Lynn on Thursday 22 October 2015
"The original back raspberry is a Pacific Northwest native known as "black cap". It will tolerate the summer temps well over 100+ days and down to -50F winter. It is not a "tidy" grower, spreading by root runners. The flavor has no equal. They prefer to grow in large clumps. They want full sun, lots of leaf mulch, with good drainage. They are not for your tidy garden and will not subject to tidy rows or trellising. They are wild and will stay that way. "
Sally Greimes on Thursday 22 October 2015
"hmmm. "black cap" raspberry sounds like it may prove to be more trouble than I need, this first year of building what I plan to be a large, varied, garden, with fruit trees. I have plenty other projects to concentrate on. I am planning to have blueberry bushes, a strawberry patch, asparagus patch, and blackberries. Any advice on these items, as to types and when to plant in my 8A zone, etc., is greatly appreciated."
charley on Friday 23 October 2015
"I have Black Satin Blackberries growing vigorously in my garden. I love your pruning advice. I will do the 1/3 pruning of new canes this winter too. One bit of old advice from a great gardener is to train your canes onto wires after pruning. The next year those canes bear fruit, and the new canes grow freely below. Pruning the canes on the wires makes the selection a bit easier and less back breaking. Summer is eating those berries fresh from the vine each morning that I pick them...and sometimes that breakfast includes green beans!"
Linda West on Friday 24 June 2016
"when is the best time to prune a first years growth on raspberries and what level to cut. I live in the bay area of calif. "
Patti Collins on Sunday 24 September 2017
"Patti, you can top back long canes now, but wait until spring to do any serious trimming. Some branches will get damaged by winter weather, so you want to wait to see what nature does first. "
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 25 September 2017
"I live at 9000 feet. The first couple of years my plants produced a lot of raspberries. I trim in the fall (October) to about a foot above grown. This year I did not get one raspberry. What should I do, I have many plants and I get a lot of suckers, that I pull. I do let them kind of grow wild but do trim them as I said. "
Debbie Martin on Sunday 29 October 2017
"Only the fall-bearing varieties consistently produce fruit on new wood, so you may be trimming back too much, too early if you have a summer-bearing cultivar. Try topping back the long canes in late summer to 5 feet, and then trim off winter injury in the spring. The lateral branches that grow sideways from the primary canes should produce a nice crop."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 30 October 2017
"Barbara Pleasant: You probably shouldn't pull any raspberry canes or suckers. You are probably near killing the root and if the root is damaged it will heal itself before producing any berries for you."
Erik Bosma on Tuesday 7 August 2018

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