Tasty Raspberries are the Cream of the Crop
Commercial breeders have worked very hard to ruin the texture and taste of strawberries. They have not been so successful with raspberries. But shop-bought ones remain expensive, even when the fruit is coming into season, as it is now. So on that score alone, raspberries are worth growing at home. They are not, in themselves, ornamental fruit, but trained and tied in on wires, they can make useful summer screens in a garden. Or you can use them to divide a fruit patch into different areas.
We did this in our old garden where I planted two rows of raspberries corner to corner in a square plot. One lot was summer-fruiting Glen Ample, the other was autumn-fruiting Autumn Bliss. In the centre of each of the four triangular spaces made by the criss-cross rows, I planted a gooseberry bush, surrounded by currants - black, red and white.
This arrangement is a slightly more decorative way of using raspberries than planting them in parallel rows, the more traditional way. Having all your soft fruit in one place also makes it easier to net. But you need to remember that autumn-fruiting raspberries grow much more densely than summer-fruiting ones and make great thickets of canes. Apart from providing a delicious crop at an unexpected time of year, autumn raspberries have the added advantage of not attracting birds for a free meal. If I had room only for one row of raspberries, I'd choose the autumn ones every time.
The best raspberries I ever ate were in Scotland. My husband worked up there for a while, and every evening in July, I'd pick up a couple of punnets of just-gathered raspberries from a cottage outside Fochabers. Fresh raspberries. Jersey cream. You don't need to muck around with good raspberries.
So think of Scotland when you plant, because raspberries like a slightly acid soil (pH6.5-6.7), deeply dug, light and moist. They do not much like chalk and are often disappointing in heavy clay soils which bake and crack in summer because this disturbs the fine surface roots which feed the canes. Usefully though, they are happy in light shade. Forest gardeners often use them as a midway planting between trees and ground-cover plants. In that setting, they are left to their own devices, but in a more typical plot, they are usually given supports. I fenced our autumn-fruiting raspberries between two sets of parallel wires. The summer-fruiting canes were tied in separately in a single row on wires stretched between 1.8m poles.
The tying in takes time, but it was a job I rather enjoyed. It also made pruning easier. Summer-fruiting raspberries need to be pruned as soon as they have finished cropping. You cut out the old canes close to the ground and thin out the new canes, leaving no more than five or six strong stems growing from each original plant. If the old canes are tied-in, it's easier to tell them apart from the new ones, so you know which ones you've got to cut out. When you've got rid of the old ones, you tie in the new canes as replacements. Then, in late winter, you can cut off the top of each cane just above the top wire. This makes them less prone to wind-damage and encourages fruiting further down the cane.
Autumn-fruiting raspberries need slightly different treatment as they carry fruit on canes formed earlier in the same season. So you need to cut the old fruited canes to the ground in late winter and thin out the thicket of new growth gradually during the season.
Canes are best planted in late November, when you can buy them in bundles. Set them so that the fibrous mat of roots is no more than 7cm below the soil. They will not grow if they are planted too deeply. Space them 38-60cm apart, the more vigorous varieties at the wider spacing. If you are planting more than one row, allow at least 1.2-1.8m between the rows. Cut down the canes to about 23cm after planting, to encourage new growth from the base. The most even growth comes in rows that run from north to south.
Routine care is simple. Mulch the rows in early spring with manure, compost or any other mulch that doesn't contain lime. Keep the ground reasonably weed-free, but don't dig deeply around the canes as this will disturb their shallow roots. New canes may need watering during their first summer, but a mulch will help retain moisture in the soil.
So what variety should you choose? Summer-fruiting varieties may be early, mid or late-season, bearing crops from mid to late summer. Glen Ample bears large crops of delicious fruit; Glen Moy has thornless canes bearing large firm fruit early in the season; Glen Prosen is also thornless but needs good soil to produce the best crops; Tulameen has a superb flavour. It is a difficult variety for commercial growers because by the time it tastes best, the berries have become too soft to survive the journey to a supermarket shelf.
If you want to grow autumn-fruiting varieties, which go on cropping until the first frosts, the main choice is between yellow berries (All Gold) or red (Autumn Bliss, which bears heavy crops of bright- red fruit). Expect about 5.5kg of summer raspberries from a 3m row, and about half that amount from the tip-bearing autumn types.
Plant virus-resistant varieties where possible to minimise the possibility of disease spread by the large raspberry aphid. But don't fuss about the aphid. I'm only introducing the wretched thing because it's what gardening correspondents are supposed to do. Concentrate instead on the thought of a dish piled with raspberries. And don't forget the cream.