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Winter Chores for Spring Fruit

Prune blackberries and ­raspberries; mulch strawberries

With the weather cool but comfortable to work outside, the time is right to prune both blackberries and raspberries.
    With regards to blackberries, remove canes that produced fruit last year by pruning them close to the ground. This is quick and easy if the plants are of the thornless varieties but can be painful if the varieties you are growing have thorns. Wear heavy leather or canvas gloves and heavy clothing with long sleeves to avoid being scratched. The most common cause of tetanus is being scratched by thorns, I learned rooming with a country doctor while in college in New Hampshire.
    After you have removed the old canes, select no more than three canes that have emerged from the base of the plant and prune back each cane to a height of five feet. Cut back the side branches from each cane, leaving no more than three buds on each stem. After all of the canes have been pruned, I like to tie each cluster of canes to keep them upright. I find a steel fence post pounded into the ground near a clump helps in keeping them separated.
    With regards to raspberries, prune away all the canes that produced fruit last year. These are easily identified by the old flower clusters at the ends of the stem. These should be pruned close to the ground. Allow those stems that did not produce fruit last year to remain. These are the stems that will be flowering and fruiting this year. To avoid crowding, space the remaining stems six to eight inches apart by pruning out the weaker, spindly stems. Allow only the most vigorous stems to remain.
    Since all raspberries have thorns, wear proper clothing and industrial gloves to avoid being scratched.
    When done pruning, mulch blackberries and raspberries with compost.
    Now is also a good time to spot-treat perennial weeds growing in the berry beds, because at this time of year, neither blackberries nor raspberries have leaves to absorb the weed killer.
    I attach a two-inch-square piece of sponge to the end of stick, soak it in a mixture of equal parts glyphosate and water, then dab it on the foliage of the weeds.
    If you have not already done so, now is a good time to mulch strawberries with straw so that come spring you will be eating strawberries and not dirt berries. To avoid weed problems, use straw and not hay for mulching. Sprinkle sufficient straw to cover most of the foliage of the strawberry plants. Avoid applying an excessive amount so as not to suffocate the plants. The straw settles down around the foliage to protect the crown from alternate freezing and thawing. In a few months, the flower clusters will rise up above the straw so that when the berries are formed, they will lie on the straw keeping them clean and dry. If you apply too much straw, the flower clusters will not be able rise through the straw and the crowns of the plants may rot.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at frgouin@erols.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.