Raspberries, like any fruit we plant, represent an act of faith.
As others are doing this time of year, this past weekend I dutifully dug little holes, added amendments and planted a long row of sad little sticks, carefully watering them in. Three or so years from now, perhaps sooner, I’m confident that I’ll be harvesting mounds of delicious red raspberries from these sticks.
Now that’s belief in the future, displayed on a dizzying number of levels: I’ll be here, the raspberries will produce, and all the work in between today and then has magically occurred. The garden fairies during the intervening years have been hard at work staking, weedeating, watering, amending, cutting out old canes, perhaps netting the plants from greedy birds, which I’m quite sure were salivating in nearby trees even as I laboriously dug and planted in the field below.
I’m suddenly reminded of one of the many Henry Mitchell writing jewels sprinkled throughout his columns on gardening. “Cats, by the way,” he astutely noticed when discussing raspberries, “are no answer to anybody’s bird problem, since then you would have cats.”
Don’t, please, now fire off a letter to the editor in defense of cats, because this is a sore point with me. I’m currently helping to feed no fewer than five of them — which I’m still at a complete loss to explain how such a feat occurred — because that’s way into creepy cat lady territory, where I swore I’d never go. Only Jack the barn cat, by any stretch of the imagination, can be considered to be earning his way in this world, in that he occasionally awakens from his naps long enough to swat casually at a mouse or two before heading back to slumber in the hay bales. The other four cats exist simply thanks to my largesse, which they’ve yet to show any gratitude or appreciation for, despite great expense and no small expenditure of labor on my part.
In my raspberry fantasies indulged in over the weekend, I envisioned harvests of such abundance I’ll probably be able — no, forced — to open a pick-your-own raspberry farm. Here lies every farmer’s secret fantasy: a farm (and to farm) with no labor.
Hah. Back to reality.
Raspberries, as with all things in life, respond in corresponding measures to the love lavished upon them. They will survive in poor soil, and fight their way through weeds and a dearth of moisture, to spit out a seedy berry or two. But give them lots of attention — rich soil, adequate moisture, plenty of room to grow — and the return is raspberries by the bowls full, nay, by the pails full.
One of the most elaborate raspberry plantings I’ve heard of is recounted in a book titled Ten Acres Enough, first published in 1864, by Edmond Morris. This was a man serious about his raspberries.
Morris was a city slicker who dreamed of the country life. After turning 40, he moved to New Jersey (which isn’t as weird as it sounds, because New Jersey at the time lived up to its moniker, “the garden state,”) with his family, and commenced to farming.
In addition to blackberries and strawberries, Morris planted raspberries, and lots of them — 5,656 plants, or nearly two-acres worth, all within his new peach tree orchard. It took him three days, but he was well satisfied with the results:
“I am sure the growth of my raspberries was owing, in a great degree, to the deep ploughing the land had received. The soil they delight in is one combining richness, depth and moisture. It is only from such that a full crop may be expected every season. The roots must have abundance of elbow-room to run down and suck up moisture from the abundant reservoir which exists below.
“Deep ploughing will save them from the effects of dry weather, which otherwise will blast the grower’s hopes, giving him a small berry, shriveled up from want of moisture, instead of one of ample size, rich, and juicy. Hence irrigation has been known to double the size of raspberries, as well as doubling the growth of the canes in a single season. Mulching also is a capital thing.”
Good advice, then and now.