Growing a Raspberry Patch in Alaska
by Wendy Wesser
Some of my early memories from childhood include picking raspberries from my great-grandparent’s abundant patch. I remember how sweet the ripe berries tasted right off the canes. All summer I would ask if I could pick the berries, and I remember well the feelings of frustration when the answer was, “not yet.” August was my favorite time of year to visit my great-grandparents because that was when their strawberries, peas and raspberries were all ripe and ready to eat. I was allowed to pick berries and peas to my heart’s content. As a child and all the way into adulthood I always dreamed of one day living on my great-grandparent’s property. In 1997 my dream came true and my husband and I moved from Anchorage to Wasilla where unfortunately the raspberry patch from my memories had long since disappeared. My first dream for our garden was to get the raspberry patch I remembered so well, re-established.
The first step was to get control of the weeds in the area. Crab grass, field horsetail, dock weed, clover and, of course the ever present dandelion problem needed to be brought under control. After a few swings with a pickax it was clear that more help would be needed if we were to get anything planted that first summer. We hired an operator with a heavy duty ride-upon rototiller and in a few hours he accomplished what would have taken me an entire summer. Not only did he rototill our future raspberry patch, he also dug up space for a strawberry patch and a vegetable garden. Our strawberries and vegetables grew pretty well that first year, but my dream of a raspberry patch did not work out as planned.
For lots of reasons, mostly a lack of committed time due to my commuting lifestyle and kids playing softball, it took a few years to get our raspberry patch established. After several years of failed attempts I asked my husband to help me make starting our raspberry patch a priority for the summer. He agreed. By this time the weeds had taken over, but we acquired our own rototiller and tilled the ground once again. We put in 4×4 treated posts to support trellises for 2 rows, 20 feet long and 7 feet apart. I placed heavy duty landscape fabric between the rows to help keep the weeds under control. My favorite raspberry is the summer bearing type, Latham, so I found a local nursery in the Palmer area that provided Latham starts. I planted the raspberries about 2 feet apart, fertilized them lightly, weeded, and watered them faithfully. Our patch is about 5 years old this year and I still have a quart of berries left in the freezer from last fall’s harvest. We had to put forth a concentrated effort to get our raspberry patch started, but it was well worth the time.
Get your patch started
Raspberries are a crop that excels in Alaska gardens and June is the ideal time to put in your own patch. Choose a permanent location in your yard that receives plenty of sunshine and has well drained soil. Choosing a hearty variety, such as the Latham, from a local greenhouse is going to be a major key to your success. Plant your canes in holes deep enough to accommodate the roots and just below their original growth level. Weeds tend to encroach quickly so be prepared to spend the time needed, especially in the first couple years, to keep your patch as weed free as possible. With proper care you will have a thriving raspberry patch of your own within 2-3 years.
Importance of Pruning
Raspberries are reliably hardy and easy to care for once established. The hardest part of growing raspberries is keeping up with picking the ripe berries in August. The plants themselves will last at least 15 – 20 years if they are pruned yearly. While raspberries are a perennial plant their canes are biennial, meaning the lifespan of each cane is 2 years. The 1st year cane produces leaves only and it is not until its 2nd year that the cane produces fruit. Once the cane is done producing fruit in the fall it needs to be cut off and discarded along with any unhealthy looking canes. The remaining canes should be thinned 4 to 5 canes per foot. There are a lot of differing opinions on fertilizing raspberries. I fertilize my patch once lightly each spring with 8-32-16. Your fertilizing needs will depend on your soil conditions. Watering is especially important when the raspberries are flowering and when the berries are forming. Unless we have very heavy rain, plan on watering your raspberries weekly so you can have an abundance of succulent berries in August. I recently noticed raspberries for sale at $5 per 6 ounces so a healthy raspberry patch can quickly pay for itself.
I have one final tip for those of you starting your own raspberry patch. My Grandma once warned me about letting the wild raspberries in our area invade my cultivated patch. I thought to myself, “But I love wild raspberries, the more the merrier, right?” Wrong! Grandma’s wisdom was absolutely correct. Keep those wild raspberries away from all of your gardens. They will take over in no time if they are given a chance. Wild raspberries are a special treat when found along a remote hiking trail, but they are not a welcome addition to your cultivated home gardens.
This will possibly be the best advice you will get if you are interested in learning specific details of how to garden in Alaska. The Cooperative Extension Service (CES) here in Alaska is an abundant resource of information. They are ready and willing to help anyone improve their gardening skills. Classes are available through the many local district offices, and many informative CES publications relating to gardening are available online. I recently signed up for the Edible, Wild Greens class through the Matanuska-Susitna/Copper River District office. You will find the CES is also a great resource for other topics such as learning about safely canning your fish, vegetables and other food. The CES website is www.uaf.edu/ces.
Raspberry Syrup for coffee
2 cups raspberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 Tb vodka (optional)
Mix together in medium sauce pan and bring to boil. Once it reaches a boil, let it simmer no more than 5 minutes and remove from heat and strain through fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth. Cloudiness from berry solids is normal, but if you want clear syrup strain it a few more times through cheesecloth. Add vodka before refrigerating to make it keep longer (up to 3 months). Syrup will last one month without vodka. Store in refrigerator.
If you enjoyed this informational article, take a look at “How to: Grow Strawberries in Alaska“.