Tag Archives: blackberries

How To Remove Blackberry Bushes Without Pesticides

As I have written here before, I love blackberries and I have let them go wild in my yard.  The vines that are choking my porch to death produce wonderful berries in the summer and it was my intention to continue to let them cultivate themselves.  However, these vigorous vines crawl up onto the floor of the porch where unwary people are given an unpleasant surprise.

If we were training with Cato Fong to stay on our toes and be Kung Fu all the time, we would not let such surprises daunt us.  But, Inspector Clouseau we are not.

My mom told me that if I wanted to keep the blackberries I would need to get rid of the bushes underneath them and stake them in an orderly fashion so we can easily keep the blackberries off of the porch.

Wait.  I have bushes under there?!

If you’ve ever had blackberries muscling their way into your garden, then you know they are very hard to get rid of.  Most people soak them in pesticides and this works like a dream.  Plus, then you get to help poison the watershed in your area.  We choose not to use pesticides.  Admittedly, this is the hard road in the short term, but poisoning our water supply will make for a much harder road down the line and I don’t mind a little work.

Here are some tips for getting rid of brambles without using pesticides:

  • Don’t let them attain mass in the first place.  If you see a wee baby cane pop up in your garden anywhere, pull it up immediately.  If you do this religiously, you will not find it necessary to read any of the following tips.
  • If, like me, you engage in lazy gardening habits (otherwise known as a crazy busy life) and your brambles have become the size of trees, you will need to grab yourself the sharpest pair of long handled bypass loppers you can find, leather gauntlet gloves*, thick pants, and some really motivating music on a portable MP3 player.
  • First cut off any obvious and easy to get at canes.  Be sure to cut them in manageable pieces as you pile them up.  You will be thankful not to be whipped by recalcitrant canes when you try to gather up your pile of trimmings to the yard waste container or compost pile.  Speaking of compost piles, blackberries thrive in them and unless the canes are 100% dead before you put them in there (brown all through, no green in any part of them) they will take root with joy.  So unless your compost pile is very hot, let the county take them to the dump or let them die before adding to your compost.
  • You work your way from the outside of the blackberries towards the inner tangles. This isn’t a tip, so much as a fact.  If your blackberries are growing over other plants you actually want to keep, you must take care not to prune out the wrong branches.  As you work your way inwards, you may need to take a band-aid break.  Or, if you’re a tough broad like me, you can ignore the blood that is inevitably dripping from your arms and legs at this point.
  • Once you’ve gotten a third of the length of the canes cut back you will find yourself reaching into the shrubbery to find the origins and this is delicate work.  There are insects in there with all that foliage.  They don’t like you shaking them down.  If your blackberries aren’t growing on anything else you may, at this point, start digging up the roots. If digging up the roots – dig DEEP. Blackberries are hearty plants with scrappy tough roots that are hard to pull up so they can survive your attack.
  • If still struggling with a bush situation, you want to get as much of the blackberry canes cut back before you deal with the roots.  Don’t cut them all the way back though because you need some leverage when tugging the roots out.  They do not come out willingly.  Don’t mind that the thorns near the base of the root are big enough to impale birds.  I promise that you will barely notice the scars in a couple of months.
  • Clean-up is very important.  Do not leave any blackberry debris behind in ground containing 5% or more soil.  Leaves, stems, and canes can all root themselves if left for more than four hours**.  The only part of a blackberry plant that can’t root itself are the thorns.   (I think)  Be sure to check back in a week to continue pulling up surprise canes.
  • Continue to do this for the rest of your life.  Consider it a zen workout.  The blackberries aren’t your enemy and they aren’t evil.  They are a fecund plant that gives free luscious fruit to humans, birds, and other enterprising animals.  You do not eradicate them completely, the goal is to keep them in balance with the rest of your garden.  Good luck!

*I never have these on hand.  I bought a pair, as I often do, and then they sit around in spidery corners.  I have OCD and issues with gloves.  In fact, I keep my own pair of garden gloves inside where I can keep an eye on them.  Then I perform a thorough examination of them before putting them on my hands which involves not just shaking them out but also crushing the full length of the fingers in case any insects happen to be great at hanging on.  I then ignore the thought of crushed insects, compel my rising panic to remain quiet, and carry on.  In any case, the times I have used long gauntleted gloves I have found that thorns still find their way through.  Whether you bother to use them or not is up to you, I merely felt compelled to mention them in case you didn’t know you could get them.  You can.

**Inaccurate information.  It seems like only four hours when in fact, it’s more like 12.

Food for the Poorest Bird

My lace-cap hydrangea, lilacs, and Japanese Snowball have become tangled with over-eager brambles that reach for bare feet, crawl across our porch, and spread out into our lawn.  It became this Medusa mess through neglect.  While the pages of my novel grew, so did the strength and ambition of the brambles encircling my house that I didn’t have time to uproot or even cut back.  I will admit that the branch-thick canes are mean to step on and I do sometimes worry I might wake up one morning unable to leave my own house like some sucker in a fairy tale.

Then the canes clothe themselves in blossoms, the shower of petals in late spring is like a bridal explosion, and just when I remember that I’m supposed to be cutting them back or digging them up the sprays of green berries swell and hang heavily with clean pure food and I am reduced to a quiet humility.  After all, I invade and take over everywhere I go too but I don’t feed birds and insects and bears and people as I sprawl.  All the scratches and the encroachments are forgiven as I pick fat black berries and eat them warm and lazy.

When I came home from my trip the berries which were (I thought) still hard and green when I left had become luscious and sweet and there were so many of them ripened already that I could dream up a dozen possibilities of what to make with them all while I ate them by the cupful.  I decided to make some jam and my mother requested a dessert be made with some because she doesn’t love jam.  I started picking them yesterday and every year it’s almost the same meditation – the abundance all around us and the abundance we kill off with round up and mowers.  I know we all need some space not over-run with blackberry hedges and in no way blame people for wanting to tame them better than I do, but to name such a generous plant as a noxious weed seems like awfully rich behavior coming from such a poor nation.

I am not rich in money and I’m not, according to all the tarot readings I’ve ever gotten, likely to ever be rich with silver or gold or even the things that stand in for them.  I might lose my home soon.  Like so many people, we’re hanging on.  I was able to take my trip for which I’m deeply grateful.  But not more than I’m grateful to the blackberries choking my porch.  I’ve got six jars of jam, I’ve eaten at least a quart all on my own fresh, and tonight we had blackberry buckle.  All of this food was free to me.  I spent no money watering them or buying them or fertilizing them.  They ask for nothing and give me pounds of organic free fruit.  I know it’s not like having a heifer to butcher up.  I know it’s not like winning the grocery store sweepstakes.  I know it isn’t the same as having a field of wheat or rice.

I don’t care.  It’s my secret joy to see blackberries taking over factory yards, neglected fields, rising up on the banks of rivers, and edging so many miles of blacktop.  I feel connected to blackberries in a way I am connected with no other fruit or food.  They’re scrappy, surviving in a hard-scrabble world; thriving in nutrient starved hard ground producing from this barrenness a rich sweet juicy tempting fruit with the most delicate fragile perfume.

While I picked the fruit of my neglect I thought about hunger and starvation.  I thought about people ripping out brambles to plant more lawns.  I thought about the kind of values that are reflected in our tendency to loath the messiness of food in a landscape.  I thought about all those people in the J.C. neighborhood in Santa Rosa who complained about the horrible messes the walnuts made on the streets.  I collected them every year.  The whole time I lived there I never bought a single walnut in the store.  So many people in our neighborhood bought walnuts when they were literally dropping from the sky into our hands.  They weren’t just any walnuts- they were high quality large walnuts with a truly fine flavor.  Before foraging for those nuts I was ambivalent about walnuts.  I didn’t hate them but I didn’t especially love them either.  The squirrels, birds, Sharon, and I looked forward to gathering those nuts every year.  Food falling from the sky.  Free food showering the streets and all anyone can say is “They make a damn big mess.  I hate ‘em!”

I’ve never lived on the streets.  I’ve never gone long enough without food to be truly deeply desperately hungry but I’ve been hungry.  I’ve had nothing but butter in my fridge on more than one occasion.  I’ve lived on potatoes and butter at times.  I know what it is to not have an abundance of food.  I don’t think you have to half starve to death to appreciate having food but why do so many people not collect the walnuts and blackberries?  Why are they called a nuisance?  I know so many people who plant “ornamental” pears and apples.  I know they’re pretty but there’s so much hunger in the world, if you’re going to plant a tree that could potentially feed you or your community – why choose a sterile empty one?

Is food such a mess that we have come to reject it if it means we have to exert ourselves at all to collect it?  There is such malnutrition and hunger in the world and yet even poor people aren’t collecting blackberries from the miles of thriving fruiting fragrant bushes.  Even poor people don’t seem to value free food unless it’s picked for them and handed to them in a bag.

While I picked 9 cups of berries from my choked porch I felt lucky.  I felt rich.  I thought that even if I lost my home, even if I became literally homeless, in Oregon I would not starve to death in August because of this generous noxious impolite weed.  There is enough here for the insects, the birds, the small rodents, the big bears, and me.  In some way I felt myself break down a little.  It happens every year when I’m picking food and realize all over again how small I am on the big map of the universe.  I am nothing.  My insignificance is colossal.

When we spend so much of our time building ourselves up, trying to become more than we started out, striving so hard to achieve things we dreamt up on quiet buzzing summer afternoons when we were children looking at the world of possibilities like it was one enormous frosted cake and all we had to do was point at the slice we wanted and it would be so.  When we spend all this time reaching and growing it’s easy to forget how unimportant each of us is as an individual.  Our legacy as a collective is so much bigger than each of us separately.  It is good to be humbled.  To become small.  It isn’t at all the same as being humiliated or being made to be invisible or not count.  Being brought to a place of humility is about embracing everything outside yourself.  It’s about acknowledging that every bite of food we get is a grace in our life.  It’s about your body being nothing more than a corporeal bookmark of who you are in this world.  You can’t take your body with you.  It doesn’t matter if you believe in heaven and hell, reincarnation, or neither- your body is a reflection of who you are but it isn’t going to go with you when you’re gone.  So you have now.  You have this minute and when you’re in a state of humility you are no more important than the bees and the frogs but you matter just as much as they do.  Everything belongs.  Everyone belongs.

My spirit is a field of blackberries growing in bankrupt soil producing from nothing a rich harvest of food for the poorest bird.