General gardening topics

Growing berberis – Planting, propagating, pruning and growing guide

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Berberis, sometimes called barberries might not be well known for drawing attention but they perform incredibly well when given the right growing conditions and there so many different types from dwarf evergreen varieties to larger deciduous ones.

This plant comes in a wide range of sizes but no matter the size you will enjoy flowers come spring, followed by fruit in the Autumn and then foliage for the rest of the year if you have one of the evergreen varieties such as Berberis Dawinii. The most common Barberries such as Berberis thunbergia grow up to 1.5 meters in height and spread but are deciduous but they make a perfect hedging plant or ornamental border plant if you choose a variety with striking foliage such as berberis harlequin with its variegated leaves.

Berberis darwinii or Berberis thunbergii

Berberis darwinii can be light pruned after flowering in spring to remove dead flowers
Berberis darwinii

There are two main types of Berberis, the first of which is berberis darwinni, a native of Chile and Argentina. This plant is an upright evergreen that produces smaller, spiny leaves with yellow flowers and blue berries. The second is berberis thunbergii of which there are many varieties which are the deciduous Japanese version many varieties of which have bright red foliage in the autumn and subsequent berries.

Attracts birds and a good choice for making a spikey hedge

No matter the variety you choose, birds will flock to the fruit so it’s a wonderful plant to consider if you are trying to bring Wildlife to your garden and because it’s prickly it also males a good intruder deterrent when used as a hedge.

Planting Berberis

When it comes to planting you need to make sure you have the right location first and foremost. These plants grow in well-drained soil in just about any part of your garden. As mentioned they are great as hedges or creating borders. The leaves on Berberis darwinni are spiny with the stems on the thunbergii cultivars having thorns on the stems which help deter any unwanted intruders in a formal or informal hedge. You can also plant them directly in the ground or in containers.

If you decide to plant it as a specimen plant, make sure you add some fertilizer and have a generously sized hole in which to place the plant before you backfill it and water it.

Berberis harlequin that is a deciduous variety. Prune in spring after flowering
Berberis thunbergii ‘harlequin’

Berberis care

As already mentioned there are evergreen and deciduous varieties and when you plant them they only need light pruning on an annual basis to keep their shape which is one of the reasons they make such a good hedging plant. If you plant your barberries as a formal hedge you can prune them twice a year.

Remember though that if you prune them after flowering they won’t produce any berries so it’s recommended that you trim them in the winter so that you can enjoy the flowers and wildlife can enjoy the berries.

Plants that have planted as specimen shrubs rather than a hedge can be pruned as and when needed in winter by cutting away alternate stems all the way down to the base, a method called coppicing. This will help stimulate new growth in the springtime but it might delay flowering by one year so don’t worry if you go a year in between flowering. 

Berberis Darwinii Nana Ground Cover shrub in flower
Berberis Darwinii Nana – perfect for ground cover


When to take the semi-ripe cutting

If you already have a berberis plant growing in your garden and you want more than one, you can propagate from a sturdy and healthy plant. The best way to propagate is through semi-ripe cuttings you would take between July and September.

How to take the cuttings

With these, you want to make sure that you properly disinfect the tools you are using and make sure they are sharp. You want cuttings that are between 10 and 15cm in length and as the name suggests, you want cuttings that are hard at the base and soft at the tip. This is growth that is semi-ripe.

When you take the cutting it is important to put them directly in a plastic bag and set them in the refrigerator or in the shade, someplace where it is cool but ideally, you want to plant them straight away. You don’t want them to dry out. It is best that you take the cuttings after you have your containers filled with compost and ready for the cuttings.

Use root hormone to encourage rooting

Before you dip the cuttings into the hole, dab the bottom with rooting hormone powder to help the roots establish themselves. You also want to cut away any of the leaves on the bottom of the cutting until such time as you have nothing but four leaves on top.

How to store planted cuttings

Place them in the containers and then put the container somewhere that gets warmth and light but isn’t exposed to direct sunlight. Your container should have a plastic cover on them such as a plastic bag or a plastic lid but make sure the top doesn’t touch the plant itself or any of the leaves. In about one months time you should have strong enough roots to transplant to a slightly bigger container if necessary until such time as you can move it outside.


Sawfly eating leaves in Gooseberry

You want to keep your eyes peeled for one pest, in particular, the berberis sawfly. Small caterpillars are actually the larvae of this soft life and they will strip your plant of all its leaves in a fast and devastating fashion as they grow. You should keep your eyes peeled for these between April and October and if you spot any of them, use organic or non-organic sprays to get rid of them immediately. If you leave this without eradicating the problem, they can strip your plant of leaves entirely. 

Recommended Varieties

Berberis thunbergii ‘Bonanza Gold’
  • Berberis darwinni compacta: This is a compact cultivar that produces small leaves with a red and bronze and as they mature, turn to green. The flowers take on a rich golden colour and produce berries thereafter which attract birds into your garden. This is perfect for a low evergreen hedge or a mixed shrub border.
  • Berberis thunbergii:  This cultivar which is available in many varieties with varying foliage colours from green to red and even some more unusual colour varieties. They are a deciduous cultivar which is often spikey with small spines of the stems.
  • Berberis thunbergii ‘Bonanza Gold’:  With Golden Leaves, this variety produces red berries come Autumn and is great at brightening up a dark area of your garden.

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