Ramble through the Brambles

trellised blackberry plants at end of bloom, beginning to set fruit (Rubus sp.)

trellised blackberry plants at end of bloom, beginning to set fruit (Rubus sp.)

If you are looking for a safe haven, start spending time in a garden.
The word “garden” comes from Old French and Old English words for “enclosure.” Evidently, the garden has always been a protected place, whether from animals that would prey upon its flowers and crops, or from the hustle and bustle, the conflict and strife, beyond its walls. Even a constantly vigilant samurai warrior, before entering a garden, would religiously remove his sword.
Perhaps the safest public haven in the Valley is a garden that, although nominally enclosed, is open 24/7. If you wanted to garden there by moonlight, you would be free to do so.
The garden haven in question is located, appropriately enough, at Hayvenhurst Avenue and Magnolia Boulevard in Encino. It’s called the Sepulveda Garden Center and is actually a collection of many garden plots tended by regular folks like you and me. For $120 a year, water included, you can cultivate your own little corner of paradise.
After spending an enjoyable hour walking around the Sepulveda Garden Center, I could not help but conclude that edible landscaping is in our future. I did not see a single bougainvillea or star jasmine vine encircling any garden plot. Instead, it seemed that every other garden was at least partially enclosed by a husky blackberry hedge or a billowing grapevine.
Blackberries and grapes are not difficult to grow as long as you adhere to a few pruning fundamentals.
Blackberries, as well as raspberries – their close relatives – and boysenberries (blackberry-raspberry hybrids) are sometimes called bramble fruits because they grow on brambles, which are defined as “prickly shrubs or vines.”
To get the most out of your brambles, cut down shoots that just produced fruit, known as canes, in the fall; at the same time, thin out fresh canes that will bear fruit the following year. It’s a little bit like winter pruning of roses, to which bramble fruits are related.
Roses are cut back radically to stimulate new and vigorous shoots on an annual basis. Left unpruned, those same shoots that flowered so prolifically and luxuriantly last year will give few flowers this year. Better to remove all of last season’s growth and generate entirely new shoots for another large, fresh crop of roses.
With blackberries, the exhaustion of shoots and canes – following flowering and fruiting – is even more dramatic than in the case of roses. With roses, a cane can continue to sprout productive flowering shoots for years. In the case of blackberries and raspberries, once a cane has produced fruit it must be cut back completely, all the way to the ground.
In essence, blackberry canes exhibit a biennial habit of growth. The first year in a cane’s life, it grows as much as 10 feet but shows nothing but foliage. The second year, it flowers and bears fruit.
After harvest, immediately remove all fruiting canes, and thin out and cut back 1-year-old canes, which will now put out side branches and provide you with a maximum crop the following year.
Blackberries should be grown on trellises or fencing. They demand a well-drained soil that should be cultivated to a depth of 1 foot or more prior to planting, within a 4-inch layer of compost spread over the top and then worked into the earth.
Although blackberry brambles will produce with a minimum of fertilizer and water, they will yield significantly greater crops when minerals and moisture are in abundance. Mulching is highly recommended.
While blackberries fruit readily enough in the Valley, raspberries are not as reliable.
‘Bababerry’ is a raspberry variety especially suited to our area due to the fact that it does not require a cold winter to bear fruit.
In the manner of blackberries, table grapes such as ‘Thompson Seedless’ and ‘Red Flame’ also produce on the previous year’s growth. Each winter, select shoots that have just finished their growth, one per arm of each vine, for the coming year’s crop. Cut these shoots back to 12 buds. Select two other shoots, one per arm, and cut them back to two buds. They will grow out the coming year and become your fruit producers the year after that.
The most popular shrub at the Sepulveda Garden Center is artichoke. I saw scores of stout artichoke bushes, with a height and girth of around 4 feet, whose buds (unopened flower buds are what you eat) were fat and ready for harvest.
Once they become established in the garden, artichokes are quite drought tolerant and may produce their edible buds for several years.
Borage (rhymes with porridge) appears to be the most popular ground cover at the Sepulveda Garden Center. Borage (Borago officinalis) flowers are sweetly edible and commonly used to decorate desserts. The leaves of freshly germinated borage plants – and they do self-sow abundantly – may also be tossed into salads and soups.
I was particularly impressed with a row of blueberry bushes.
I met Larry Medin, their caretaker. These blueberries were planted by a fellow gardener at the site whose wife gave them to Medin when her husband passed away.
They are, no doubt, a southern highbush blueberry, several varieties of which are suitable for Valley growing. Medin is growing them in 5-gallon containers. His biggest concern is birds, which have already begun to nibble on impressive clusters of fruit.
Blueberries compatible with our climate may be procured from a Granada Hills nursery, whose many exotic fruits can be viewed at www.papayatreenursery.com.
Near the parking lot, as I was leaving, I met Taione Tuikolovatu. He has a garden plot that is filled entirely with taro (Colocasia esculenta), a tropical potatolike plant whose tubers, as well as leaves, are edible.
I learned from his son that their family came from Tonga, a nation comprised of numerous islands in the South Pacific, where taro is an essential part of the local diet.
Tip of the week
While at the Sepulveda Garden Center, I made acquaintance with a species of poppy I had never seen before. Known as a peony poppy (Papaver paeoniflorum), its opulent flowers look like a cross between a carnation and a camellia. Foliage is an attractive silvery blue. Peony poppies are easy to sprout from seed, and flowers appear in every shade of pink and red, as well as white and a dark chocolate that verges on black. You can purchase 1,000 peony poppy seeds for $1.99 at www.swallowtailgardenseeds.com.

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