Blues by Gary Mount
At Terhune Orchards, we have two acres of blueberries. That might not seem like much but, believe me, that’s a lot of blueberries – millions! And, they are just about the most satisfactory crop that I grow.
Growing blueberries is intriguing. They actually are not supposed to grow well here. They were discovered and developed in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey where the soil is very acidic (low PH), sandy, a high level of organic matter, very well drained but having a high water table, maybe as close as two feet from the surface. Terhune Orchards soil has none of these characteristics.
Planting blues begins with a two year old plant purchased from the nursery. I bought my plants from Michigan. Two acres, spaced at 3 by 10 feet gives us room for 3,000 plants — an entire tractor and trailer load! But ordering the plants is just the first step — then come the interesting parts.
Blueberries need to grow in acidic soil. The makeup of their roots is such that they cannot absorb from the soil the nutrients the plant needs unless the PH of that soil is very low — about 4.5 to 5. Terhune soil normally ranges between 6 to 6.5 — a big difference. We lower the PH by adding sulfur. Because soil tends to rebound to its natural state, we have to add sulfur every year.
Then there is the organic matter. Pine Barren soils have levels of between 7 and 9 percent or higher of organic matter. Our upland soils have about 2 percent. Some of you might have seen Terhune’s wood chip mountain. We apply them around the plants every year.
Next comes water management. Blueberries do not like wet feet. We ridge up each row 8-12 inches above the middles so heavy rainfall can run away from the plant roots. But, blueberries also cannot stand a drought. During the growing season, our water table can be fourteen feet below the surface. No blueberry roots go down that far. We have installed trickle irrigation systems to give them water — every day if needed.
Another so-called intriguing part of growing blues is patience. It takes between 5 and 7 years to get significant production. In fact, the recommendation is to take all the fruit flowers off during the first growing season — it just killed me to do so.
And then there came the birds. These voracious, winged blueberry disappearing devices could just about eat our whole crop. Very little would be left for us or for our pick-your-own customers. We now build a plastic net enclosure over the entire two acres. It takes a lot of time and it costs a lot, but when the birds sit outside the net and make a fuss about being excluded, it makes me smile.
When it is finally time to pick, about the second week in June, the first berries ready are amazing. They are huge, very tasty, but tart as well as sweet. There aren’t very many, only a few per bush, but our most experienced pick-your-own pickers make sure to get here early to get these first berries.
Blueberries are different from almost all other fruits. Most fruits need to be picked within a week after becoming ripe. Blueberries ripen and can hang on the bush for a month or more. Some people come every week and pick from the same bushes as they ripen.
Don’t forget to check out our blueberry recipes.