Canes, sticks and edible jewels in the fruit and wildlife garden

Late crop of Redcurrants, Image by Rowena Millar

Rowena Millar, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's (currently Non-Roving) Wildlife Reporter, continues to show us how to make the best of our gardens for wildlife. This week, Rowena highlights how we can repurpose old raspberry canes for the benefit of nature and shares the late-summer, sweet surprise waiting for her in her garden.

As the sun sets on summer and our garden plants swap frenetic growth for seed production and a winter rest, I’ve been out in the fruit cage catching up on cutting and tying in raspberry canes. The old ones can be used to help other plants and wildlife around the garden.

As usual, I’ve left removing the old raspberry canes much later than intended. To my surprise, there were still a few soft, chubby late raspberries on the younger, more robust plants, despite earlier torrential downpours with strong winds.

I don’t think they were an autumn-fruiting variety. Instead, it was probably more to do with a late burst of glorious hot sunshine following the colder weather. There were some small but tasty raspberries in the local woods too, their floppy thornless stems holding their own amongst tougher, more vigorous brambles. Maybe others hadn’t noticed these humble little fruit amongst the tart unripe red blackberries and their juicy black ripe companions.

Cutting raspberry canes

If you don’t cut down your old raspberry canes after they’ve fruited, you end up with old growth getting in the way of next year’s more productive stems. As you are pruning near the foot of each old stem, you can let your mind wander, or marvel at the different arthropods like spiders and bugs living in, around and under your fruit bushes. If you grow late-flowering plants there will still be plenty of bees, butterflies and hoverflies about too.

It seems that the later I leave raspberry cane cutting, the harder it is to tell which stems are the old ones. With some dry, brown and brittle ones it’s very obvious, but other older stems are still quite green and leafy. I have to check whether they have been tied in previously, whether they still have signs of having fruited, and whether they have been climbed by opportunistic bindweed.

Expert gardeners will tell you to cut out some of the young canes too, to thin them and ensure vigour in the remainder for next year. I always seem to break or tread on a few by mistake, but I am rather generous to those healthy new plants that insist on growing outside the fruit cage and around the rest of the garden. These are to share with the blackbirds, but we end up collecting many of them, as the blackbirds have other berries to choose from.

Tie the new canes gently but firmly to strong sticks or posts pushed deep into the ground (I find tall bamboo works well) using either garden string or reusable flexible ties. This helps the raspberry plants survive the strong winds of autumn and winter. I support canes along the outside edges of the fruit cage, or growing along the hedge, with long horizontal pieces of string, to stop them leaning across the path.

What to do with the old raspberry canes

Yesterday I noticed robins fluttering around inside a boundary I created using a mix of living trees and shrubs (vertical) and cut branches and canes (horizontal). The garden border was planted some years ago with a row of shrubs and trees including Amelanchier, Guelder Rose, Dog Rose, Rowan, Holly, Tommy Knight apples and Cornish Aromatic apples, Buddleia, and our old slow-growing Christmas tree. As these have grown up, I’ve been inserting cut branches horizontally between them to fill in any gaps.

Growing a lot of trees, fruit bushes and shrubs in a limited space does involve a certain amount of cutting and trimming. Laying the trimmed branches horizontally, weaving them in and out a little between vertical living trunks and stems, tidies up the inevitable large pile of cut branches and sticks that’s in the way, while creating rather a good nesting and sheltering habitat for birds such as robins, dunnocks and wrens. If you do the same, remember to leave a little hole somewhere at the bottom for hedgehogs to get through.

Remember to leave a little hole somewhere at the bottom for hedgehogs to get through... old raspberry canes have become part of the hedgehogs’ winter home and shelter.

Some old raspberry canes have become part of the hedgehogs’ winter home and shelter. This resembles a bonfire at the bottom of the garden by the Cornish hedge, under oak and hazel, facing approximately west. It’s a permanent feature, slowly rotting down and being added to. This may also be useful to overwintering small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. Here are some other ideas:

Purple Loosestrife supported by a tall raspberry cane

Purple Loosestrife supported by a tall raspberry cane, Image by Rowena Millar

  • Use canes as plant supports. Pea sticks for edible peas and sweet peas are an obvious example. Cucumber plants also have tendrils that will grab on to sticks. By the pond, a strong cane supports a tall native Purple Loosestrife plant in a pot. (Its column of flowers supports long-tongued insects, but the internet tells me it’s invasive in the US, where it was introduced.)
  • A ring of raspberry canes can hold up a shrub that’s become floppy in late summer due to long stems and heavy flowers or seed heads. Either stick the canes in soft ground vertically with some garden string around them, or lay them on their sides in a square or a basket shape and push in vertical strong sticks on either side to keep them in place.
  • Raspberry canes can be cut to short lengths and used vertically as biodegradable garden edging, along paths or around small raised beds, for instance. Use them for decorative effect around larger, higher raised beds already bordered by long chunks of strong planking. If still flexible, they might even weave into mini hurdles if you have the skill and patience.
  • Push sticks inside wooden boxes or structures to make insect hotels. Children love doing this.
  • Lay raspberry canes over loose soil to prevent cats using the area as a latrine, or birds such as pigeons or pheasants landing and eating your produce.
Spare canes next to shredder

Spare canes ready for the shredder, Image by Rowena Millar

  • Finally, if you run your raspberry canes through a chipper or shredder, you can create a lovely woodchip mulch for your soil, so nothing is wasted. I keep my chipped wood and leaves in a wire mesh container until they have rotted down, for the ultimate fungi-rich nutritious mulch. Don’t forget to mulch your fruit bushes ready for next year. You will feed and protect the soil and soil creatures as well as the bushes themselves, and suppress competitive weeds. I remove grass, Ground Elder leaves and other weeds around each bush, putting them in the compost heap and replacing them with a thick mulch, while leaving other areas unweeded. Remember not to mulch right up against the stems of your bushes, as they might rot.

Strings of pearls

While tying in next year’s raspberry plants on August Bank Holiday Monday, I discovered some a second crop of other berries. My whitecurrant bush, purchased from a local organic garden supplier years ago, must be one of the best-value fruit bushes ever. Its new strings of translucent berries seemed to absorb the sunshine and glowed like wonderful pearl necklaces and earrings. These were very sweet jewels, so I ate some of them straight off the bush. The others will be destalked and popped into the freezer.

The redcurrant bush was also fruiting again, its glowing berries hidden among fresh green fern leaves and old grass that had grown up underneath. I’ve left a few on the ground for hungry hedgehogs, which will eat fruit as well as invertebrates. At this time of year, the door to the fruit cage is left open for them, to help them fatten up.

Whitecurrants and Redcurrants

A late summer bonus of whitecurrants and redcurrants, Image by Rowena Millar

I’ve also been discovering fungi – without which our familiar natural world would almost certainly not exist – and preparing the pond for winter. These are subjects for future blogs, along with some more favourite creatures. So do keep reading, and thank you for your interest.

More information on wildlife gardening