With the weather holding dry and fair last week, I took the opportunity to spend some time down at Plot #59 and make a start on of the more essential winter maintenance jobs: pruning our soft-fruit bushes.
Soft-fruit crops are among the most useful you can grow on an allotment. They’re perennial, so once they’re in they take very little to maintain, and count towards your area-under-cultivation score for purposes of satisfying the allotment committee’s quotas. The fruit itself is the sort of thing that’s generally classed as a ‘superfood’ (although it seems that pretty much anything fresh is going to be vitamin-packed and bloody good for you). And when you look at the shop-price of a small punnet of raspberries or blackcurrants in the shops, then think of the kilos of fruit you can pick from even a couple of bushes in a decent year, I think you’d be a bit daft not to.
We have a small but highly fruitful selection so far: five gooseberry, around ten blackcurrant, a Japanese Wineberry, three redcurrant and a whitecurrant. We also have a section of assorted raspberry canes relocated from elsewhere on the plot; mostly Autumn-fruiting, one or two Summer-fruiting. We have plans to grub the raspberries up and replace them with named varieties next year, but for now they’re staying put. And we’re hoping to add a few more bushes to the section as well: one or two Jostaberries, maybe a Gojiberry, that sort of thing.
Confession time: we made a bit of a noob mistake when we planted them out back at the start of our allotmenteering and the fruit bushes went in too close to each other. Now, well-established well and with conditions this year proving favourable for lots of new growth, they’re a little too closely packed for comfort. Some of them will need to be relocated, or donated to plot-neighbours. But before that stage, they all need a good winter prune.
I’ve tackled the blackcurrants and gooseberries so far, going over the plants to remove any congested, crossing or damaged stems and branches. I’ll be giving them a second pass shortly, and working on the redcurrants, too, following the generally prescribed method (Carol Klein’s book Grow Your Own Fruit is a good source for general advice).
Blackcurrants: Fruit on new growth. Up to the fourth year after planting, remove weak and wispy shoots to establish a framework of 6-10 strong, healthy branches. After year four, cut out about a third of the old wood at the base to make room for new growth. Continue to remove weak shoots and those leaning towards the ground.
We moved the blackcurrants from elsewhere on the plot, or brought them in from home, so I’ve assumed that they’re all probably more than four years old and so have pruned accordingly.
Gooseberries, Redcurrants, Whitecurrants: Fruit on old wood and at the base of new stems. Shorten leaders back by a third and sideshoots back to two buds to encourage fruiting spurs.
Here’s a before-and-after shot of the largest of the gooseberry bushes. A bit difficult to make out – especially with the different light levels between shots – but hopefully you’ll spot that the second pic is less congested, with a more open, goblet-shaped centre. This should hopefully allow for good ventilation when the plant is in full leaf next year, cutting down on the risk of grey mould infection, and allow plenty of light to reach the whole plant.
Raspberries (Autumn): Fruit on new canes. Cut down all old canes, right to the ground.
Which is what I’ve done with all of ours. There’s a different pruning regime for Summer-fruiters, which fruit on one-year-old canes which need to be tied in to a support framework. Check out this short GardenersWorld.com video for useful advice from Monty Don.
Japanese Wineberries Fruit on this year’s growth. Sprawling habit, will self-layer (like blackberries, they’ll form roots if stem-tips touch the ground), and can become invasive…
The Japanese Wineberry only gets a passing mention in Carol Klein’s book as a hybrid berry of interest, but I’ve read up elsewhere. Knowing about the tip-rooting habit, I made sure that the one strong stem that grew last year from the newly-planted rootstock (which I think we bought from Beningbrough Hall NT, where they grow them in the walled garden, if I remember it right) was tied to an upright bamboo cane. This year it sprouted prolific side-shoots, all of which developed multiple clusters of delicious berry-producing blossom. After fruiting, these side-stems seemed to die right back, and so I pruned them out as they failed, leaving a single strong, upright stem and three or four smaller side-stems. We’ll see what happens next year: hopefully more of the same, and I might be able to encourage a stem or two to self-layer into pots so we can increase our stock.
Blueberries: Maintain a soil pH of 5.5 or lower, using ericaceous compost or a sulphur-based amendment, and mulching with conifer clippings (a handy use for your neighbours’ chucked-out Xmas tree). For established bushes, remove 2 or 3 old stems at the base to encourage new growth and tip back vigorous new shoots to a healthy bud to encourage fruitful side-branching. These hardwood cuttings can be used for propagation purposes, too.
We have two blueberry bushes growing in large pots at home. I’ll be taking a look at those this week and checking to see what needs doing with them, but as I re-potted them at the beginning of the year, I don’t think I’ll be doing anything too drastic.
And that’s pretty much it, apart from the aforementioned reorganisation and relocation, followed by a good mulching with composted bark.
If you’ve had success – or not so much success – with the same or different pruning and care regimes, please do feel free to share your top tips in the comments below. All feedback and advice will be very welcome indeed.