Thursday, February 2, 2012

Battle Blackberry

As I went out this morning to take my own advice and get an early start on spring cleanup in the yard, I tidied up the front and side yards, then closed my eyes and held my breath before glimpsing into the dark, creepy back yard.  Normally when I refer to my back yard I mean the side yard with the garden and patio.  Primarily because I like to pretend that the muddy, weedy space at the actual rear of my home does not exist.Which is part of the reason it is in its current state.  Full of old playground equipment from the previous tenants, random junk that broke and couldn't be fit in the trash can, some sort of annual weed that has set up a colony and breeding program, and huge masses of blackberries.  Well, they aren't THAT huge actually, it's only a 24x12 foot yard.  When we first moved in this yard was in decent, if not particularly hospitable condition.  The swing set worked and the trampoline was fun, but they took up a lot of space and the yard was surrounded on two sides with sheds, one side with a fence, and the other side with the house.  It got light for a few hours in the morning and became a murky cave after that point.  Two years ago the neighbors behind us removed a large birch tree that was dying; the birch had shaded the back yard so I was happy to have it gone.  As it turned out though, the birch had also shaded and restrained a small patch of blackberry canes underneath it too.  Once the tree was removed the blackberries had a heyday, growing up over the fence and landing in my back yard where they immediately sprouted suckers and new roots. 

Since I don't spend much time back there other than to toss scraps in the compost pile, I didn't really notice this until it was too late.  By then I had a 24x12 blackberry patch filling every space in and around the playground, crawling behind both sheds, and working it's way up over the bean trellis into my garden area. 

I have cut them back a few times to prevent them eating my house, but always during the growing season when they will quickly just sprout two more heads for every one that is cut, like a hydra.  Today I was ahead of them, and it made me think that as a garden blogger it was imperative that I share my intimate knowledge of blackberries with readers.  Now that my shed has been unburdened of blackberry canes I am free to take a break to write.

Blackberries are cane plants, they grow from seed, or rhizomes, or underground runners, or above ground runners; pretty much they can grow from anything.  They are thorny, pernicious weeds in most areas.  Mind you, when I am talking about blackberry as a weed I am referring to Himalayan blackberry, there are many other varieties of blackberry that are far less invasive and make delicious jams and pies too. 

The only way to beat blackberries is to kill, kill, kill year after year.  For large patches it's sometimes easiest to clear a small area each year and work it down until there is nothing left.  If you can borrow, or already own a goat, they are the blackberry's natural nemesis and will eat each and every cane until nothing is left if given the opportunity.  I think the very best way to handle blackberry destruction is to borrow a goat each spring to destroy new shoots until the shoots finally give up and stay dead.  My dad's neighbors put their goats out near a huge patch of blackberries on their property and a few months later were rewarded with a mobile home!  The house had been buried in blackberry canes for so long no one even knew it was there until the goats ate their way around it.

Not everyone has the goat option though, if you don't you'd better don your hat, leather gloves, sturdy pants, boots, and long sleeved shirt.  This is part of the reason to cut them back early in the year, it's still cool enough to keep yourself completely covered.  Cut down canes with a machete, or loppers, or pruning shears.  Most lawn weed whackers will just bend thicker canes and not actually cut them.  Cut down to the ground!  Rake up all the debris from your murderous rampage, then throw it out with the trash or in a yard debris bin.  Do not compost blackberries: they may grow back in your compost, seeds may sprout in the compost or garden beds where it is used, and dropped thorns might still be there when you add the compost to your garden. Ouch!

Once the canes are cut to the ground and the cuttings have been disposed of you should dig up as many root balls as you can.  They can grow back from even the smallest root, but if you can remove some of the largest ones you will have a head start, by leaving only small roots which are not well-stocked with food. This is another reason to kill blackberries early in the year, the ground is still soft and moist which makes root removal much easier.  If you keep all new shoots cut to the ground as soon as they pop up these smaller roots will eventually die, since they have no leaves from which to absorb sunlight, larger roots have much more stored nutrition and will live longer.  At this point you simply have to maintain the status quo, despite the blackberry's attempts to regrow.  Cut new shoots during the spring and summer season, in the fall lay down a VERY heavy mulch layer, next spring you can mow or weed whack new shoots if they are small enough.  Continue this way until you finally stop seeing any growth, but pay attention, check back every few weeks to ensure they really aren't coming back.  I also don't recommend doing any permanent landscaping in the area until you are certain there will be no regrowth, it's awfully hard to pull blackberries out of retaining walls and garden borders.  This may take a few years but eventually you can win the battle, if not the war.

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