Blueberries: Fountain of Youth

Reader Contribution by Bill Hakanson
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Blueberry season came early this year in northwest Pennsylvania…probably because April was the hottest on record – with many days in the 80s. As usual, we made the most of it. 

Blueberries are also called moonberries because of the grey hue they reveal when ready to pick. 

We have 25 mature high bush plants and 25 starters. Mostly from the mature bushes, we gleaned 150 quarts or 225 pounds of this delicious fruit. 

Since there is no way we can consume all these blueberries, we off load our excess to friends, neighbors, at the local farmers market, and wholesale through local meat market/convenience stores. 

This great fruit is full of fiber and known as the best antioxidant out there. Antioxidants help prevent heart disease and cancer, reduce blood pressure and slow the effects of aging. Antioxidants are naturally occurring compounds and protect the body from harmful, excess free radicals, sweeping them up before they can cause damage.

Once the berries start coming, we have them in some form every day…mostly fresh on cereal. However, they freeze well and thereby can be consumed throughout the year.

This season Lynne incorporated this versatile fruit into juice, tea, pancakes, waffles, muffins, pie, jam, catsup, salads, dried them, and even converted them into a sugar sprinkle and liquor made of Vodka and blueberries. 

Growing blueberries is easy. Some folks call the plants “edible landscaping” as they offer an attractive hedge.

Young plants are available from several reputable growers…a search of the Internet is sure to reveal them to you. We were fortunate to purchase half of our patch from a local gardener who was switching his crop from blueberries to strawberries. Who knows how long he tended these bushes; and with continued TLC they’re still producing great for us…even in the first year of transplant.

As you can imagine, purchasing mature plants costs more to buy, transplant, and install in your field that “starters”. Blueberry roots are shallow but extend out at least as wide as the circumference of the plant. In our case, we used a back hoe to dig over two dozen one foot deep circles in our field. It took several trips to move them to our farm, and considerable labor to put them in place and back fill the soil over their roots.

Our second batch of 25, two or three year old plants were obtained from a nursery. Much easier to plant, but they seem more demanding to care, watering and attention. And based on apparent growth rate, it may be five or six years before they produce like our mature plants. 

Blueberry plants like acid soil…between 4.5 and 5.5; and if maintained properly, will produce for a lifetime. Our land is an old cornfield; soil conditions are ideal. They love to be mulched with fresh sawdust as this material will leach sweetness from the soil. To keep the soil acidic, we treat them with sulphur and a low nitrogen fertilizer in the spring.

Follow the 3D principle of pruning: cull dead, diseased, and damaged wood. To stimulate new growth, approximately one-quarter of the plant should be removed each year. New growth is exciting to see as it sprouts from the heart of the plant.

When planted in rows, they should be spaced at least 8 feet apart as a mature bush will have a 4′ to 5′ radius. Our plants are situated so we can run a small riding mower between the rows to keep the grass trimmed. Some folks mulch the entire blueberry patch and thereby only deal with the occasional weed growth between plants.

There are many varieties of blueberries. We recommend you mix early, mid and late yielders to extend the season. Cross pollination suggests you start with at least three plants. And during harvest, give each plant a taste test…you’ll be surprised at the variation.

Like most fruit and vegetables, not all blueberries ripen at the same time. In addition to turning a rich blue with grey hue, some berries actually “plump up” when they’re ready to pick. If they don’t roll off the stem when you go for them, leave them on the bush.

Once the berries begin to mature, the battle is on to harvest before the critters get them. Robins, cedar waxwings, sparrows, cardinals, brown thrashers enjoy them; as do night time predators including skunk and raccoon. Many small growers net their bushes to protect them from these wild consumers. Our strategy is to pick ’em twice a day and try to get more than our feathered and furry friends.

This year the Japanese Beetles were few and far between, but in years past, we learned they’re not so bad on the berries, but they really like the new, tender leaves. Traps and shaking them off the bush into a jug of soapy water cuts the population.

The best container for picking is a plastic, gallon milk jug with the spout cut off so the berries can be dropped in. Retain all of the handle. A cord through the handle loop and around your neck frees both hands for picking.

We age them a day at ambient temperature before refrigerating as this tends to sweeten them up a bit. Once refrigerated, they should stay chilled until consumed.

So, if you want a solid food producer that is also a fountain of youth, get yourself a patch of blueberries and enjoy.

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