How to Prune Blackberries

by Daisy

Pruning holds a mystique for me.  It’s the purview of the elite, experienced horticulturist, not a bush-leaguer like me; a craft bordering on art in its extreme forms, and it scares me.

My first experience with pruning, other than hacking away at overgrown hedges, was with roses.  I read all about forming a bowl shape, maintaining air circulation, where to cut to encourage new growth in a certain direction.

That was twenty years ago and still my rose-pruning method is to address the plant, flash back upon the tutorials I’ve pored over in the past two decades, and then start hacking off whatever has been grabbing my clothes as I pass by.

Blackberries are different.  They’re yummy.  So I’m more serious about them than roses.  Here, I’ll explain some of the basics about blackberries and show how to prune them to encourage production and keep them under control.

My blackberries are upright thorny blackberries.  The instructions here apply also to upright thorn-less blackberries.  Their growth is similar, though not as aggressive as the thorny variety.

To prune blackberries, first you have to know blackberries.

Blackberries fruit on second-year growth.  That’s known as a biennial fruiting habit.  Lovely fancy terminology.  More of that to come.  Don’t be intimidated by the words.  It just means that, like many flowers, such as Sweet William, you plant it one year, it puts out green leafy growth only.  The next year, it will flower, and in the case of the blackberry, it will make blackberries.  You can tell first year growth (called primocanes–prim0=first, see?) from second year growth (called floricanes–flori=flower, easy!) by their appearance.  Primocanes look fresh, green, and new, with lots of tender growth at the tips, (and no flowers or fruit) throughout the growing season.  Like this:

In this next photo, compare the primocane on the right to the floricane on the left.  The floricane, in addition to the obvious flowers, has darker, more mature leaves here at the tip compared to the primocane.

Now you know your floricanes from your primocanes, let’s talk about pruning.

The most basic, pruning 101 is removing floricanes after fruiting is over.  They will not bear fruit again, and removing them is crucial to keeping your blackberry bushes from looking like a celebrity mugshot hairdo.  Those old canes will hamper new growth, encourage disease, and make harvesting next year’s crop more difficult.  Here’s a spent floricane:

Follow it down to the ground, cut it off at the crown (where it emerges from the ground), pull it out (wear heavy gloves if yours have thorns) and discard it. Keep going until you’ve pruned them all out.  Done.  Easy.

The second type of blackberry pruning is known as tipping.  This is done throughout the growing season.  Blackberry canes want to send out long runners, several feet long, at the expense of branching growth.  This makes your bushes look more like giant spiders than shrubs.  This characteristic is called apical dominance.  The tip (or terminal bud) of those long canes contains a hormone called auxin which actually inhibits the growth of the lateral (or side) branches.  Naughty terminal bud.  What we want is lots of lateral growth and thicker canes for more places for blooms and berries and stronger canes to support those big, juicy berries.

So what we do is cut off those naughty terminal buds so the canes will be able to branch out, get stout, and produce more fruit.  In this photo I’m showing you some of the lateral shoots that will grow and beef up the cane once the tip is removed from the end of the cane they are on:

See the little leaves trying to grow?  In the next photo, check out the lateral growth that has begun on this cane which was pruned a few days ago.  This is what we want.

Keep your canes trimmed back to from 24 to 48 inches long, depending on how compact you want your blackberry bushes to be.  And once those lateral branches that you’ve encouraged to grow get over 18 inches long, tip them back, too.

So now you know how to have tidy, productive blackberries, clear out some space in the pantry for some of this jam.

Disclaimer: This post may contain a link to an affiliate.
Matt J July 22, 2011 at 7:30 am

Thanks for the info! My creekside blackberries are gonna get a haircut this year 🙂

Jessie July 22, 2011 at 9:24 am

You mean running them over with the lawnmower is not the correct way to prune them? 😉 haha

Thank you for the tutorial, that actually helped a lot!

mike July 31, 2011 at 9:21 pm

I want to use the black berry bush not only for fruit but for security purpose but I need to keep them under strong control. Can YOU HELP WITH ADVICE

Devo! August 24, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Excellent tutorial. Planted my BB bush two years ago, was uninformed and disappointed after the first year, and shocked when it exploded into 15ft high/long canes this year! Enjoyed the berries i did get, but was in the dark on how to control the plant. Looking forward to a more controlled, productive, and delicious third year. Thanks again.

Devo! August 25, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Follow up questions, advice appreciated. Now that i’ve cut back the spent floricanes what do i do with the long, unpruned primocanes from this year? Should i just let them go and begin tipping next year, or is there some pruning that can be done? I’m in zone 4a-ish so there’s only a month or two of green season left. Will this years large primocanes die back to the ground or will i be stuck with these gangly monsters for one more year?

Daisy August 25, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Devo!–I’m in a much more temperate zone (7b/8a) and my primocanes will keep growing for a while and cruise through the winter unscathed. SO, I hesitate to advise you up in 4a. Are you thinking that your primocanes will be winter killed as a matter of course or because they are so long?

Devo! August 25, 2012 at 5:49 pm

As a byproduct of the cold weather.
I wonder if i have the variety this guy is describing >>><<&lt;. When trimming out the floricanes yesterday i (think i) stumbled upon the tiny first year canes that were clearly dead, brittle little 1-2ft brown sticks woven through the chain link fence the plant is near. Clearly those did not return for a second year, but also the huge canes this year (three bore fruit, five did not) were not present at all last year, so i'm slightly baffled.

Daisy August 26, 2012 at 7:31 am

Devo!–Interesting. It makes sense the nurseries in your region would stock primocane fruiting varieties, so maybe that’s what you have. You mentioned you planted them two years ago, in which case it’s possible they’re prime-jim or prime-jan because they came out in 2004. If you decide yours are floricane-fruiting, in the future try a method of tipping called “soft-tipping”, which means removing 1-2 in. from the tip of the canes once the canes are about 3 feet long. I’m not sure what to tell you to do this year not knowing what kind they are but it doesn’t sound like you can go horribly wrong. Blackberries are so vigorous they will survive most anything.

Sarah September 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Most helpful and useful info on this I found. Thank you!!

Sharon Gullikson February 11, 2013 at 3:09 pm

Thanks for the info. What I’m still not clean is the last 2 photos. Where do I cut? I live in Orange County,CA. I already trimmed back my bushes fairly severely, and THEN looked online. Woops. I may not get much fruit this year. So I want to trim them properly from now on, but am not clear. Will you be putting diagrams or doctored photos on? Also, how do you keep track of which branches have already fruited (my flower parts fall off eventually, so the evidence disappears)? Do you mark the branches, or trim them back as soon as you see that all of the berries have been picked? Thanks a lot.

Daisy February 11, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Sharon Gullikson–You want to tip your runners after they are 2-4 feet long. 2 feet if you want compact bushes, longer if you want them to get bigger. Cut just after a node (where a lateral will sprout from). It is easy to see which have fruited because they look old and tired and the new growth is bright and young and green. You won’t need to mark them, you will soon learn which is which. It’s easier than it looks once you get started, I promise!

Sharon Gullikson February 11, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Thanks Daisy. I think that I get it now. Hopefully I’ll still get a good crop of fruit this year, even though I cut them way back. At least now I know what to do from now on…
Thanks again!

Kurt L. June 9, 2013 at 3:52 am

Please help… I’m more confused than ever. I have some nice looking two-year plants (thornless) that are exploding with flowers off the lateral shoots created from “tipping”. So… once these lateral (floricanes?) are done, do I prune the actual original primocane at the ground (after the 20 or so laterals are done of course!) or just the floricane back to the primocane and keep the primocane?


Daisy June 9, 2013 at 9:24 am

Kurt L.–Think of it this way: after it blooms and produces fruit, remove it to the ground. That whole thing is a floricane by definition. Nomenclature follows function here. Does this help?

Kurt L. June 10, 2013 at 3:56 am

Yes, thank you.

Ron September 15, 2013 at 5:20 pm

What about first year plants? We are in zone 5 and I set out some young thornless Chesters back in the spring. It’s now mid September and those babies are off to the moon!! They have lots of runners ranging from 1-20 ft.. I have not done any pruning thus far. So now do I just wait until after harvest the second year ? Thanks….

Daisy September 15, 2013 at 7:35 pm

Ron–You still want to tip prune them to encourage branching, ideally throughout the growing season. I don’t know what to recommend this time of year, but if those 20 footers are grabbing you as you go by I would give them a haircut. Doesn’t seem like growth will be a problem and they will make it up eventually.

George February 16, 2014 at 10:56 pm

Hi. I have a huge older thornless blackberry bush on the back side of my property still here from the previous owners. It’s probably 8′ tall and just as wide but produces very few berries. I’m assuming because it has been left to grow wild without pruning. I honestly have no clue which of the many canes are from what year, etc….. My question is can I prune the whole bush back severely, like maybe to three foot canes or so, prune the lateral shoots and maybe then prune selectively this year when I can get an idea of which cane is doing what? I don’t want to kill the bush but I would like to get it under control or pull it and start fresh in that area. Thanks in advance for any advice. 🙂

Daisy February 17, 2014 at 9:36 am

George–That sounds like a good solution. After you cut everything back to a manageable size, you’ll probably be able to tell more about what’s what, too.

Berry Nice May 30, 2014 at 9:37 am

I have a second-year ‘Navajo’ BB (upright thornless type) that did produce a little ‘sample crop’ of fruit last season and its first ‘real’ crop of lovely big berries this year. Mine seemed to be doing its thing quite a bit earlier than most of the other BB plants around here, and my harvest time is almost done. It is shooting up just one new P-cane as I type, which is now about 20″ tall. I’ll be cutting the ‘retired’ canes back as soon as I get the last berries off of them. Once I cut out the retired F-canes, will I start to see more P-canes?

Daisy May 30, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Berry Nice–Yes, I should think so, although I’m less familiar with thornless types at this point (planted some this year). The fact you have only one, but you do have one, indicates to me it’s a precursor of more to come but that since this is only its second year it may take a bit longer before you have new primocanes bursting out everywhere.

Allison March 29, 2015 at 11:41 am

Hi Daisy! I just bought a blackberry bush yesterday and I’m confused about the tipping process. The runners on my bush are fairly long already (the longest being about 30″) with not too much lateral growth–it looks like a spider! Do you tip every cane, just the primocanes, or just the floricanes? Can you tip in the spring to promote growth for the summer? Also, I’m not sure what the standard practice is for garden centers selling blackberries, so it’s hard to tell if my bush is entirely primocanes so far or if they keep them in the nursery for a year before distribution. Thanks in advance for any information you can provide!

Daisy March 30, 2015 at 7:23 am

Allison–Do you have thornless or thorny blackberries?

Allison March 30, 2015 at 10:47 am

They’re erect thornless

Daisy March 30, 2015 at 6:53 pm

Allison–They do look very spidery. Thornless canes are very viney at first, but after a couple of years they start to become more upright. In my experience, thornless varieties are slow to get established compared to the thorny varieties. It’s a bit early to see much growth where I live, just some little green leaf tufts laterally. I don’t think it would hurt to give the ends a little snip. Once those lateral branches start to grow, you can keep them tipped to 12-18 inches. It may take a couple of years before they begin to take shape and take off. It’s worth the wait!

Stacey May 4, 2015 at 7:26 pm

Hi, I have the thornless upright blackberries. I planted them 2 years ago. They have tons of green foliage and look very health but have not produced a single bloom. Any thoughts? They are in a bright sunny area, and get plenty of water.

Daisy May 4, 2015 at 9:38 pm

Stacey–I wish I could help you, but I’m experiencing the same thing. The thornless ones really seem to behave differently, at least while they are getting established.

Edward Smith June 16, 2016 at 7:29 pm

I need some help lots of it. I have a nice patch of thornless blackberries ( four, forty foot rows). They produced good fruit for about two years but have stopped producing for the last couple of years. I have noticed that ONLY A THREE LEAF PLANT WILL BEAR FRUIT WHILE A FIVE LEAF PLANT WILL PRODUCE NO FRUIT. Have you or anyone else seen this problem. The plants are healthy and have nice green leafs. I live in Vermont and it gets cold up but that does not stop the plant growth. I have no bloom so far this year and I expect there will be no berries again this year. Thanks for any help you can give me.

Daisy June 17, 2016 at 7:44 am

Ed–I had a look around the forums and your experience seems somewhat common. Some suggest a pollinator of a different variety might help, others insist they are self-pollinating. Your keen observation re the number of leaflets on each leaf is quite true; primocanes (next year’s fruiting canes) typically have 5 leaflets. Floricanes, which will produce fruit this year (in most cases) have only 3 leaflets.
My personal experience with thornless blackberries is only about 4 years old. Mine were slow to begin producing and bloom and fruit much later than my thorny blackberries. I hope mine don’t quit producing all the sudden.
Four forty foot rows is a lot of real estate to sacrifice to non-fruiting canes. I don’t know what to advise you, assuming you practice good pruning and tipping and related maintenance. Have you consulted your local ag extension office? They may have more Vermont-specific information than I have. Best of luck and sorry your plants aren’t fruiting.

S. Hicks November 12, 2016 at 6:30 pm

I have 2 year old Prime Ark Freedom blackberry bushes that have grown out of control. Lots of fruit this summer. I pruned out all the fruit bearing canes but the primocanes are now 8-10 feet long and bending over. Can I prune them back to 3-4 feet without damage? I am in zone 8a.


Daisy November 13, 2016 at 7:24 am

S. Hicks–Here’s a good guide for care of primocane fruiting berries:
It recommends mowing them down to within a few inches of the ground every spring after the first establishment year, then beginning tipping once they reach 15 inches tall, and again at 30 inches tall. This may seem drastic, but as you’ve observed, they get out of control super fast. At this point of the year, you may just want to leave them until the spring and start fresh with the spring clip, but I don’t think a trim now if you need get them out of the way would hurt.

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