Insight Into the Care and Maintenance of a Blueberry Orchard Throughout the Year
By: Bill Parks
Blueberry plants require a well-drained acidic soil which must continuously be tweaked though the use of sawdust, sulfur and peat moss. If the underlying ground isn’t just right, as many gardeners can attest, the e plants cannot thrive. Nurseries propagate the plants with cuttings taken from one year old canes. After rooting, they require five to seven years of maturation before they are able to sustain fruit and growth concurrently. During the time, even under the best care and conditions, a grower can expect to lose up to a third of their nursery stock.
Throughout the life of the plants, diligent maintenance is required to ensure longevity. This calls for many tractor hours and countless miles on foot.
One of the most intensive jobs on a blueberry farm starts April when pruning begins. Teams of highly trained laborers devote up to quarter of an hour to each individual bush. Using lappers and shears they remove winter kill, excessive growth and old wood in an endeavor to open the bud bearing branches to light. It takes a great deal of experience to perfect the art of pruning and even then, a crew can often disagree on the optimal approach. Discarded cuttings are ground and mulched into the field to recycle organic matter and retain spruceness among rows.
With pollination complete, the fruit set begins to establish. Crews hasten to re install and repair the ceiling and walls of our fifty acres of netting that will protect the crop from avian invasion. Without this protective shield, close to half of our crop could be lost to Robins, Starlings, Cedar Wax Wings and Grackles that snitch tiny pecks from berries and lay the remainder to waste.
When King Berries ripen, preparations for harvest are made. The facilities for our U-Pick and fresh market berries are upgraded and opened. The grounds are groomed, buckets are cleaned, bags are ordered and water closets, hand washing facilities and drinking water stations are erected, scaled are balanced, signage is hung, parking lots are cleared, advertising is released and staff is trained. The first fresh berries are picked for the bakeshop and then to the retail sale.
When conditions are finally ideal for picking, we open the fields. The next several weeks are a blur of activity as we work to the harvest the crop and provide a pleasant experience for the pick-your-own crowed.
As the buds begin to burst, blossoms appear in late April and May. Immature plants must be gently deflowered and established plants must be provided frost protection. That makes the next priority to reinstall, clean, test and repair the irrigation system to ensure that every bush has access to water. Whenever the temperature dips to near or below freezing the entire year’s crop is in jeopardy. Pumps are primed and engines are started. Field by field across the entire acreage, we saturate the leaves and blossoms with water. Each irrigation riser (there are 650) must be checked to ensure that it is performing and that each bush is being provided total coverage.
Once full bloom has been reached millions of honey bees are brought in to join native bumbles in pollinating the precious blossoms. It is important to time this just right to ensure a consistent harvest. For five or six weeks the fields are literally abuzz with activity.
Blueberry Season Usually last from mid July through the end of August. Weather plays a major role in the longevity. A scattering of late-producing varieties will yield into September.
As the leaves on the bushes begin to turn their signature crimson red, the last of the season’s fresh berries are relished. The netting is carefully retracted and stored, finally allowing the birds free reign. The irrigation system is drained and mechanisms are cleaned and stored. Berries that were quick frozen during harvest are sorted and packaged. Field maintenance for weeds, disease and insects carries on until November and machinery is tuned, repaired and tucked away to wait next year’s season.