06 August 2009

Blackberries: Friend or Foe? (or Frenemy?)

Reading Michael Tortorello's post the other day on plants for the "E-Z gardener" (no work, bountiful harvest, with raspberries being the obvious choice for the lazy gardener), I thought of my own, new backyard. No, there's no gardening going on there yet (lazy or otherwise) -- talk to me in a couple of months -- but at the back of this otherwise recumbent dirt patch is a zone of exuberant, thorny productivity that we inherited from the previous owners. (Though I suspect they never actually planted it.)

What is it? A huge, writhing, angry (I kid you not, plants assume attitudes!) bramble of blackberries, slowly ripening whenever the sun manages to break through the SF summer fog.

My attitude toward this mass of deadly-serious thorns, rolling pin-thick canes, shiny, darkening berries and delicate, frilly flowers is mixed: Fruit is good. Free, abundant fruit is one's own backyard is really good. Pollinators (bees, especially) are loving it, which benefits everyone. And I'm sure the squirrel I spied snacking at my potted blueberry bush the other day is also happily anticipating his next treat.

But, man oh man, this plant is INVASIVE. It has a lust for conquest. We already hacked everything back once this spring (it was waist-high), but the big bramble's young, eager cousins are again poking through neighboring fences, cracks in the old retaining wall, open dirt, anywhere really. Shoots of new growth reach and r e a c h outward for more space to inhabit. I actually saw them eyeing our house greedily, arching up and out, towards the back deck, 50 feet away. I do not turn my back on this plant.

OK, I kid. Sort of.

Anyway, the funny thing is that when I cross the street, my attitude changes completely. It is instantly clarified, in a positive direction. Walking through the Glen Park canyon, I marvel at big, beautiful clutches of the very same blackberries ripening everywhere alongside the paths. (Yes, these plants are also aggressive spreaders in the canyon, but someone else has to do battle with them, whacking them back, back, back.) In the canyon, I'm the greedy one, making plans to come back and pick as many as I can, the instant they're ripe. I simply love that there are hundred of pounds of wild berries growing across the street from my house, in this urban setting.

I guess I'm just not sure if (or how) we'll choose to coexist with the blackberries in the backyard. The master plan for the yard makeover does not provide for thorny shoots popping out of just anywhere. Maybe we'll leave the bramble in the back to be our productive, slightly unruly friend. (Though the Mister of the house wants no part of that plan.) Who knows. But, it puts me in mind of something Gayla Trail said on You Grow Girl (and I'm clumsily paraphrasing), that gardening -- though it can seem a little precious and "civilized" -- is often an act (futile or not) of conquest.

Postscript: the Tortorello post led me to this interesting urban homesteading blog: Homegrown Evolution. I'm greedily reading the archives.


  1. Yummmmm... blackberries. If I had them wild in my yard out here in suburbia, I would be making my blackberry cobbler all of the time. I would probably be heftier than i am right now, too because of it. I wish I could come pick some and make it for you, girl! :)

  2. Good idea! Yes, please come up and bake with me! :)
    One of my co-workers was also thinking of trying to make blackberry wine. Her neighbor's (uninhabited) yard is getting overrun with berry invaders. Must turn them into something good!

  3. I do most of my gardening with RoundUp. It's a wonderful way to enrich and fertilize the soil and to return the earth back to its original hunk-of-rock-that-escaped-the-kuiper-belt state. As a kid, before America's agri-industrial complex introduced the magic of RoundUp, my dad would hack the blackberry bushes back every season. But I remember going into our small backyard and harvesting buckets of fruit, returning with purple stained hands and a belly ache. Grandma would make jam and dad would smother vanilla ice cream in berries. Yum! Good memories.

  4. What a lovely picture you paint, Mr Mundo...

  5. Funny! I planted a tiny Blackberry bush last year and was pleasantly surprised that it actually produced fruit here. So I planted another little one this spring. I wonder how long it takes before they become invasive? Mine seem so insignificant and everything BUT unruly!


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