Brambles can be a thorny problem. These sprawling plants can have a tendency to take over if left unchecked. Whether you are clearing a space for a new polytunnel, or another new growing area in your garden, or simply trying to overhaul an overgrown area, or trying to stop thorny branches from posing a threat to your polytunnel or other garden structures, getting rid of brambles can seem quite a challenge for organic gardeners.
Reasons Why You Might Want to Keep Brambles
Before we go on to examine how to get rid of brambles in an organic garden, we should consider whether you might wish to keep some brambles in your garden. In certain scenarios, brambles can be a useful addition to your outside space. The benefits of brambles include:
- Edible fruits, that are produced in abundance each year.
- Benefits for local wildlife. Brambles not only provide blackberries for local wildlife to eat. They also provide nectar for bees and other pollinators when in flower. What is more, they can also be a useful habitat that offers shelter and homes for a range of creatures.
- Natural security perimeters. Brambles can make your property safer and more secure by making it more difficult for people and/or certain animals to pass into your garden.
- The prickly plants can protect young trees from rabbits and other pests and can be a useful pioneer species.
- A fast-growing source of biomass for use in the home and/or garden. Since brambles grow so quickly, they may be considered as a valuable source of woody material. We will explore some of the things that you can do with bramble branches below.
If you are considering growing brambles for their fruits, there are certain ways to prevent these plants from becoming an almost unmanageable tangle. Carefully taking each shoot and securing it to wires can help to tame the beast. Careful shaping, pruning and wiring can help you shape your bramble patch into something much more useful and usable. Secure branches horizontally to encourage the formation of vertical flowering and fruiting shoots, and do not be afraid to prune back hard to keep the growth in check.
If you do want blackberries but do not currently have brambles in your garden or in the surrounding area, it is worthwhile noting that there are a range of thornless blackberries on the market. These could be a good alternative to a thorny bramble briar.
Why Chemicals are Not the Answer
Blackberries can be a boon – but of course there will still be times when organic gardeners want to get rid of brambles in their gardens. Brambles may be taking up far too much space. They may be in the wrong place, with limited yield. They may also be threatening structures around the space with their vigorous growth, blocking out light, or outcompeting other more valuable garden plants.
Some land owners and gardeners resort to chemicals to solve such a problem. But in an organic garden, it should go without saying, chemicals are not the answer. Glyphosate and other herbicides are hugely harmful to the environment and may also pose a risk to human health. A little hard work today, and a little live-and-let-live is far better than a scorched earth policy which leaves a massive problem down the line – for you and for generations to come.
Preparing to Tackle Brambles
Tackling brambles organically will usually involve getting up close and personal with bramble plants. Unfortunately, their thorns can be dangerous. Before you approach the problem, it is important to make sure that you are properly protected. Make sure you have:
- Thick gloves
- Long sleeved tops and leg protection.
- Long-handled loppers (so you can reach more easily to chop brambles off near the base, and do not have to reach right into the thicket).
Once you are suitably dressed, the next stage is to remove the bulk of the material so you can get to the root of the problem. How exactly you will deal with a bramble problem will depend on where exactly the brambles are located and the scale of the problem. Large bramble thickets will usually be dealt with in one of two ways. The first of these ways is to burn away the bulk of the material before clearing the site.
Burning Bramble Thickets
The first way is to use fire to burn the majority of the bramble patch to the ground. Of course, this way is only suitable for areas that are away from homes or fences, and where fire will not be too much of a hazard to the surroundings. This method may also, obviously, be far more of a challenge in wet or very humid weather. It should go without saying that if you are using fire to clear bramble thickets, you should always have fire safety in mind.
Hiring or buying a flame thrower can make it easier to clear large areas of brambles organically. But it is important to consider the environmental cost of using such a tool. If you are planning on using the area cleared to grow food, it is a bad idea to pollute the area with any kind of accelerant.
Getting Rid of Brambles By Hand
If you live in a built-up area or are clearing a smaller bramble patch from your domestic garden then it is likely that your only option will be to clear by hand. With this method, as with burning, the goal is to clear the bulk of the above ground material so that you can get right in there and tackle the roots of the problem.
This method will take time, and your protective gear will become essential. However, take things slow and steady and you will find that brambles can be tackled relatively easily. Cut the bramble branches away one at a time with secateurs or other sharp tools. If your bramble patch is close to your home or in a built up area then this is often likely to be your only option. You will have to be careful to avoid scratches and cuts.
Here are some tips to bear in mind when clearing brambles by hand:
- Start at the outside of a thicket and work your way inwards.
- Try to cut brambles into manageable lengths of 2-3 feet so that you can move them with less chance of cuts or scratches.
- Designate an area for the cuttings ahead of time, and place them into this location (or receptacle) as soon as you cut them, so you do not have to handle and move the thorny branches twice.
- You can burn bramble branches if you wish (and could use them to create charcoal). But you may wish to consider other uses for bramble branches. For example, a fibre obtained from the stems can be used to make twine.
Getting to the Roots of a Bramble Problem
One you have either burned or hand-cut the bulk of the bramble patch to a little above ground level, it is time to tackle the roots of the problem. Bramble roots are thick, extensive and difficult to extricate entirely. However, the key to managing a bramble problem is to remove as many of the plant crowns as possible. Crowns are the parts of the plant, just below soil surface, from which new shoots will sprout. Removing these will get rid of the bulk of the brambles on a site and significantly reduce the amount of regrowth experienced. Just cutting brambles to ground level will usually result in extensive regrowth.
To remove the crowns and as much root as possible, take a garden fork and level upwards to pry these from the ground. While this is indisputably labour intensive, taking the time to get rid of the bramble crowns will help reduce the bramble problem going forward, and so is worth taking the time and effort to do.
Preventing Brambles from Taking Over Again
Brambles are powerful and resilient plants. It is likely that brambles will continue to pop up in the location of a former thicket for a few years. Removing these while they are small – taking care to remove plants from just below the soil surface – will make it easier to stay on top of the problem.
While nothing will outcompete a bramble, thickly planting a range of crops and avoiding bare soil can reduce a bramble problem and prevent brambles from proliferating too quickly again once the major problem thicket has been removed.
Do you have brambles in your garden? How to you stay on top of them? Do you find brambles a boon or a pain in your outside space? Check out our recipes page for ideas for using blackberries in your kitchen, and share any of your own suggestions for making use of, or dealing with brambles in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.