Who knew that growing berries was so nuanced?!
If I had to pick one flavor that represented summer to me, it would be ‘raspberry.’ That’s because my grandma used to have a raspberry garden in her backyard, and as a girl, I would spend afternoons in early August eating the sun-warmed berries straight off the vine. Now, as a 20-something with garden goals of my own, I’ve wondered what it would take to replicate that patch of magic myself.
From some light Googling, I learned: not much. Raspberries are relatively easy to grow, said the Internet, and though the bushes naturally thrive in cooler climates, there are now many different varieties that can flourish in an array of conditions—including hot, dry climates (like my home in Colorado) and even in container pots, which is perfect, because I don’t *technically* have a backyard (#apartmentlife).
So this summer, feeling nostalgic about my youth and craving more homegrown berries in my life, I decided to give raspberry growing a whirl. It turned out about as well as when I decided to get side bangs in seventh grade, which is to say: horribly.
It all started off with the best intentions, AKA a 5-gallon container pot, a pile of compost soil and an adorable baby raspberry stalk. The stalk was a transplant from my parents’ raspberry garden (which actually came from my grandmother’s OG patch!), and after I transferred it, I watered it thoroughly, let it drain and set it up on the sunniest spot on my balcony.
Within 24 hours, the plant wilted dramatically. And within 36 hours, it was dead (seriously, here's a photo).
Feeling upset-slash-disturbed that I’d managed to kill such a healthy plant in less than 2 days, I turned to two gardening experts to understand exactly where and how I went so wrong. In memoriam of my deceased stalk—and for the sake of innocent raspberry bushes everywhere—here is their counsel.
The first thing I learned was actually uplifting: I’d chosen the correct type of raspberry for my climate and circumstances.
Fall-bearing raspberries, also known as the ever-bearing variety, are the best bet for Colorado in general, and also for container planting, Don Burnett, a certified arborist and gardening guru in Kelowna, British Columbia, tells me. This varietal produces fruit in late July and August, compared to the summer-bearing varietal, which flowers in June. So I at least got one thing right!
Timing is key
This is where I went quite wrong. I did my transplant in July, which is a big no-no.
“You have to be a really big green thumber to dig up a plant in the middle of a growing season and plant it into another pot,” says Burnett. “It’s like cutting into someone without putting them to sleep.” *Cue feelings of intense guilt.*
If you are to attempt this risky mid-season transfer, make sure you water the plant well the day before you plan to dig it up, advises Burnett. [This, I did not.] Then, after the transplant, spray it with Wilt Pruf, he adds. This special formulation will stop the transpiration of moisture out of the plant and better its chances of survival.
All that said, by far the better and easier method is to transplant the stalk when it’s dormant. “That way you’re not shocking the plant at all.” Burnett recommends doing this in March or April.
When finding a stalk for transplant, go to a nursery, says Tyler Davis, certified horticulturist and Plant Expert at Orchard Supply Hardware. Transferring raspberry stalks between gardens is “a great way to share plants, but this also risks exposure of your garden to plant disease, as raspberries are very susceptible to soil-borne diseases and fungi and these can be transmitted when transplanting,” he explains.”The best plants to start with come from nurseries, where plants that are offered can be certified virus-free.”
Proper watering and drainage is important, too
You don’t want your plant to “get bone dry like a cactus,” says Burnett, “but you don’t want it to be constantly wet either.”
The correct amount of water for any container plant depends on two things, says Davis. The first: where it’s located, and the second: how much wind and sun it receives. “In areas where the weather is windy and hot, a container raspberry would likely need daily watering,” he advises. In cooler, non-windy climates, watering every other day would likely suffice.
Another factor to consider is the amount of rain the container receives, though this does not always provide enough water for potted plants, caveats Davis, and supplemental water might still be needed. In thinking about my own plant (or rather, the memory of it), since Colorado tends to be super dry, relatively steamy and frequently windy, I’d likely have had to water it daily.
While figuring out the right watering schedule for your plant, err on the side of too dry, advises Burnett. “Plants would rather get on the dry side than be constantly wet, because that can prevent the roots from breathing and cause root rot.”
On that note, it’s important to ensure good drainage in your pot. Simply putting gravel in the bottom of your pot won’t help, says Burnett. “You will still have root rot and salt build-up,” he says. Instead, pick a container with holes in the bottom and place a saucer underneath. Be sure to empty the saucer after the water has drained through the pot and the berry has had a chance to soak up what it needs from the saucer, adds Davis.
You’ll get a break from all this during the winter. That’s because raspberries lose their leaves and go completely dormant in colder months, which means regular watering is not usually needed. “Potted berries can be watered once a month in the winter if no winter rain is present, as this keeps the roots healthy,” says Davis.
The right pot size and soil type
The size of the container depends on the size of the root ball (i.e. the main mass of roots on a plant) that you are planting, says Davis. Though my 5-gallon pot was likely ok for my mini stalk, says Burnett, the best rule of thumb is to find a pot that is 2 to 3 inches larger in diameter than the original nursery container, says Davis. “This allows some room for root development and growth in the future and also won’t shock the plant,” he explains. “If a small plant is put into a too-large pot, the success rate is lowered because the plant roots think they need to hurry and fill a large space.” Instead, it’s best to gradually increase the size of a pot by transplanting every few years. “This is also a great time to add fresh potting soil that will help root development and plant growth,” he adds.
As for soil type, opt for well-drained, open potting soil—not garden or compost soil, says Burnett. [Add that as another mistake on the list.]
Fertilizer can help
Quality fertilizer is a good idea for container plants in general, says Davis. If you use a potting soil with fertilizer in it, start using low-strength supplemental fertilizer after about six weeks, he says.
Be sure to read the labels on all fertilizers for application instructions. Liquid fertilizers are taken up quickly by plants but don’t last long in the soil. A fertilizing schedule that utilizes both liquid fertilizers and slow release granular fertilizers is always a good idea, he says.
Sunny conditions are best
Potted raspberry plants need full sun—at least 8 hours per day, says Davis. That said, if you’ve attempted a transplant (despite the caveats mentioned above!), leave your plant in the shade for the first 10 days to let it ‘get a foothold,’ says Burnett. “Once it starts looking like it’s catching [i.e. growing again], you can move it into a full sun spot.” [Yet another thing I screwed up.]
The bottom line
Growing raspberries in a container pot is “very easy if you follow these steps,” says Burnett. Somehow, I think an expert gardner’s definition of “very easy” and my definition of “very easy” are quite different, but maybe—in the spirit of fresh fruit and fresh beginnings—I’ll give it a go again next year.