When it comes to growing raspberries, there is the way you should grow them and the way that I grow them. The two are quite different.

My wife, Nancy, and I planted our current raspberry bed in the early 1980s, well before both the internet and my career as a gardening columnist. For planting instructions, I followed the three sentences of directions that came with the plants. We got fruit fairly quickly and usually a lot of it.

Does this mean that I am smarter than the people from the Cooperative Extension who write pamphlets and do instructional videos? Of course not. Those gardening professionals not only are smarter but have done a lot more research, too. What my success does mean is that plants are resilient and put up with less-than-ideal conditions.

I’ll start with what you should do, using as my source pamphlets and YouTube videos created mostly by David Handley, vegetable and small fruit specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension at Highmoor Farm in Monmouth.

Raspberries prefer to be planted in full sun, with sandy topsoil containing lots of organic matter in the pH range of 5.6 to 6.2, slightly acidic in other words.

Raspberry crowns and canes are planted in late April to mid-May, but you should begin preparing the soil earlier – as much as two years before the actual planting. The Extension suggests using composted manure or garden fertilizer and planting a cover crop such as oats, buckwheat, rye or millet the year before planting and tilling them in. You also could just add compost or composted manure to the area you intend to plant.

Plant the original canes about two feet apart in a single row. If you are planting multiple rows – and home gardeners probably won’t do that – they should be eight feet apart.

Raspberries’ roots and crowns are perennial, lasting year after year. The canes, however, live only two years. On traditional, summer-bearing raspberries, the canes shoot up to their full height the first year, but produce only leaves. The second year they produce lateral, fruiting branches coming off those canes.

So-called ever-bearing raspberries have two crops each year, one in the fall on the tips of first-year stems and the second one the next year lower down on those stems.

Because the spotted-wing drosophila lays eggs in fresh fruit beginning in mid-August or so, I can’t recommend planting ever-bearing varieties. The late crop is likely to be damaged.

The key to good production of raspberries over the long term is pruning. Raspberries will send roots underground over long distances. My first experience with raspberries came when I was about 10 years old, and a cousin and I discovered a patch about 20 feet square that looked like no one had ever tended it. We picked multiple quarts of raspberries for an entire morning.

But the raspberries will be better if kept in check. At ground level, the raspberry row should be kept 12 to 18 inches wide. You build a trellis system so you have a width of about 42 inches wide at a height of about 4 feet.

Then each year, sometime between November and early April, you remove all spent canes – which will be gray and peeling as opposed to the fresh green of new canes. You also cut down all canes outside of the desired width at the bottom. Then you cut out all the weakest first-year canes so that you have about three healthy canes per square foot.

This is also the time to do a thorough weeding, as well as, in my case, get rid of all the accumulated pine needles and oak leaves. Once all that work is done, I fertilize in early spring.

Handley’s video shows how to carefully tie each individual raspberry cane to the string going around the 42-inch wide area at the top of the trellis.

So that is how it should be done. Our raspberries have had a different history.

For starters, I don’t know what kind of raspberries we are growing. I thought we bought Latham, but I know we have at least two different types. Some look like Boyne, small and round and productive. Some are thimble-shaped and huge, and we like those best, but I can’t tell what they are.

About 10 years after we planted them, they had spread widely. We had a 40-foot row, and it had become as much as 15 feet wide in places, and picking the raspberries was a chore.

Our raspberries might have been close to full sun when we planted them, but they are definitely part sun, at best, now. The neighbors’ pine trees have grown a lot taller and broader.

About 10 years ago we got the row in check, making it 2 or 3 feet wide at ground level. We don’t have a trellis. We put in metal stakes and have a recycled plastic clothesline (with wire inside the plastic) all around the row, to keep the canes from flopping. We don’t bother tying the canes to the clothesline.

Ever since I started writing the garden column and learned how things should be done, I have thinned out the raspberry canes much more than I used to. That has worked well. But the biggest boost to the crop has come recently. We had great crops for several years, even sending our then grammar-school-age children to sit on the side of the road and sell some for their college funds. Then the Japanese beetles arrived, and our production decreased.

But for the past three years, the Japanese beetle population has been way down. It might be that the bio-control is kicking in and killing the beetles. It might be that the European chafer – which does no damage to fruit as an adult – is out-competing the Japanese beetle during their grub stage.

Either way, I’m just enjoying it. And I wonder how much better the raspberries would do if I could find a sunny site and start over the right way.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]

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