Tame that wild berry patch for a delicious and abundant harvest

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The piece of Maine property we acquired recently was logged over about five years ago. It was a selective cutting operation that let pools of light onto the previously shaded hillside.

Today these openings in the woods are filled with wild blackberries - blacks for the most part, but there are some reds as well - and we gather fruit by the pailful every day during the month-long fruiting season.

Lewis Hill, former nurseryman and author of several books, including ''Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden,'' describes berries as ''nature's cover crop,'' so readily do they take over clearings, whether man-made or through forest fires.

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Brought in by the birds, the berries become a source of still more food for birds, foraging bears, and those humans who will risk a scratch or two. Ultimately, I will establish a ''tame'' raspberry patch in Maine, because no other fruit rewards the gardener so quickly (often in two years) and so well for so little effort. Meanwhile, I am improving the wild berries by thinning them out and removing all spindly canes, which will both improve the harvest and make harvesting much easier.

If this sort of discipline helps in the wild, it is even more effective in the home garden. ''Thin and win'' is the appropriate slogan for the berry patch as well as in much of the garden.

One of the advantages of reporting and writing on gardening topics is the opportunity it provides to meet horticulturists of note. Lewis Hill, who gardens in the chilly hills of northern Vermont, is one such expert. It was his advice, in fact, that helped get my raspberry patch off and running a decade ago.

Mr. Hill's advice for would-be raspberry growers:

* Location. For heavy cropping, choose a sunny site that is free from competing tree roots. Avoid swampy ground, but always remember that raspberries require a steady supply of moisture.

* Soil preparation. A raspberry patch can be highly productive for 20 or more years, so good soil preparation before the first plant goes in is worth the effort.

For each row, dig or till the soil 21/2 feet wide and 12 or more inches deep. Remove all grass roots and turn in manure or compost. Mr. Hill recommends 10 pounds for every 1,000 square feet if using bagged, dehydrated cow manure.

* Spacing. Set each new plant 2 feet apart in the rows and have the rows 6 feet apart. This may seem overly generous at first, but when the rows thicken out you will find that both you and the berries will appreciate that space. Too tight a berry patch makes harvesting tedious. I had to remove the center row from my berry patch here in Weymouth to comply with the Hill directive. Digging up and removing the center plants wasn't easy, but it was well worth it in the end.

* Planting. Dig a generous hole for the roots. A shovelful of compost in the bottom won't go amiss. Set the plant in the hole so that the roots are 1 to 2 inches below the surface. Firm the soil around the roots, leaving a saucerlike depression to catch the rain. Soak the soil.

If your plants are bare-rooted, leave them standing in a pail of water while you prepare the holes. After planting, cut back the cane to about an inch above the ground. New canes will spring up from the roots, and they will bear fruit the following year (or with some varieties, in the late fall of the same year).

Potted plants need not be pruned back so drastically. Give all newly planted raspberries a pint of water a day for the first two weeks if no rain falls.

* Subsequent care. When the young canes are a foot or so high, mulch the rows with leaves, hay, or straw, or a combinations of all three. I mulch the whole area, including the space between the rows, with a thick layer of leaves each year. This practically eliminates a need to weed, and the steadily decaying leaves give the berries all the plant nutrients they need.

On the other hand, a side dressing of manure each spring will never go amiss. And if you wish to give the berries an added boost, feed periodically with a liquid fertilizer until about mid-July, but no later, as the plants must be given time to harden off for the winter.

* Pruning. In the fall of each year remove the old dead canes that fruited in the summer. Next, thin out the new canes to about 6 inches apart. Keep the sturdy canes and eliminate the spindly ones.

As a final act before the snow flies, cut back the canes of all the tall-growing varieties to about 5 feet. The shorter varieties will not need this treatment.

Raspberries can be planted in either spring or fall. If you haven't the time to prepare the soil for the early planting, work up a good site for fall during the summer. A crop of buckwheat, plowed in at flowering time, will help clear out competing weeds and add much-needed organic matter to the site.

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