Fruit for the Month: February

Young blueberry plant in snow. Photo Bridget Aleshire

We are in the dormant period for most fruits, with really none to harvest, although this is a good month to eat stored and preserved fruit.

Depending on your climate, you could start to plant new fruit bushes and canes, and whether you do that or not, there is plenty to prune and care for.

Blueberries are the Focus Fruit for February

Harvest blueberries in June in the mid-Atlantic. Photo Small Farm Central

Blueberries were also the Focus Fruit for June, when I wrote about harvesting them, and about the differences between Rabbiteyes, Northern Highbush and Southern Highbush types, and about planting. If you are about to buy plants, let me remind you that we have bought good plants from Finch Blueberry Nursery in Bailey, North Carolina, as well as from a more local source in SW Virginia (now retired). If you only want a few plants, buy potted blueberry plants locally. Otherwise, order bareroot plants shipped to you. In Virginia Edible Landscaping offers a wide choice.

Growing Blueberries

Blueberry bush with buds in March. Photo Pam Dawling

It used to be a tradition here, that the first garden shift of the year, in late January or early February, after the winter break, was spent pruning blueberries. During December and January, only a few people were working in the gardens, harvesting hardy crops, and tending to the hoophouse and greenhouse. Once the rest of the crew returned, we cleaned, sharpened and oiled the pruners, and set to work.

We have two patches of blueberries, both Highbush, despite being in a climate where you might expect Rabbiteyes to do better. The older patch has four rows of eleven bushes, which have been growing there since before 2007. Mostly we don’t know the names of these varieties. We have replanted to fill gaps over the years, and each spring we have logged how they are doing, whether they are early or late, productive or not, small or large berries, delicious or OK.

Young blueberry plant protected for winter with mesh.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

The newer patch was planted in November 2007, with 4 plants each of five varieties, planted in two rows in the order we expected them to ripen: first Duke, then Spartan, Bluecrop, Chandler and Aurora. The Duke variety has by far been the best, both productive and tasty. The Spartan early on declared itself to not be suited to our location. We have digital records of this patch from 2016-2019. Probably we have paper records from 2007-2015. At the last count, we had 4 Duke, 1 Spartan, 6 Bluecrop, 3 Chandler and 6 Aurora. We have propagated Duke to replace casualties in the old patch.

If you are looking for good varieties for central Virginia, here’s what I gleaned from our notes:

  • Duke: Good strong, productive plants
  • Spartan: Not right for this area, didn’t thrive
  • Bluecrop: Did well initially, started to die out by 2016
  • Chandler: maybe earlier than Bluecrop, large berries.
  • Aurora: Very late, large berries, so-so flavor.

Blueberry Plan/Annual Calendar

Late January/February in a mild spell: Pruning (See Special Topic below)

Late January/early February:

  1. Weed
  2. Add soil amendments such as sulfur, if soil test indicates a need.
  3. Add compost
  4. Renew mulch: Rake remains of old mulch aside first. Double cardboard, then replace old woodchips and top up to 3” with new woodchips or sawdust. The new patch had landscape fabric underneath at first, but that was removed, so it now needs double cardboard and new chips, just like the old patch.
  5. Plant new bushes to replace casualties.
  6. Repair fencing if needed.

Early Spring (April? March if there’s a drought):

Check irrigation and start irrigating twice a week. Weed.

Late Spring (May):

  1. Old patch – tackle Nut Sedge by several repeated cultivations with rakes or hoes when nut sedge is 3-4” tall.
  2. When flowers are setting fruit, install the roof netting.
Blueberry netting on hoops.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

June:

Harvest.

Summer (August):

Weed. After harvest, remove and store the roof netting, check perimeter fencing.

Fall (September/October/November):

Prepare new area if needed. Plant new bushes in November (or wait till Feb)

Weed, spread compost, mulch, take soil tests.

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Pruning young blueberries.
Photo Lori Katz

Special Topic for February: Prune Blueberries

 

Late January/February in a mild spell:

1-2 year old bushes: remove all flower buds (the plump round ones). Remove tiny weak shoots and leave a sturdy bush.

General, all ages: Remove all dead, diseased, damaged and dying wood.

  1. Decide whether to propagate. To layer a low-lying branch, scrape the bark on the underside, pin it down to the ground with a 6” wire staple, weight the pin down, and flag it. Layering has been much more successful for us, but it is possible to make hardwood cuttings, with 3-5 buds hardwood sticks (not flowering tips), and root these.
  2. Remove cross-overs, low-lying branches, branches heading for the center of the bush, branches hitting the roof of the netting.
  3. For young bushes, up to 4-years old, that’s all the pruning you do. Aim to leave a sturdy, healthy bush. Focus on removing spindly stuff. For older bushes, continue with step 5 onwards.
  4. Count the thick old trunks bigger than 1.5” diameter, divide by 5 and saw out this many, at ground level, (unless it would leave fewer than 6). Choose the oldest, scaliest, darkest ones for removal.
  5. Remove any spindly growth, tangled clusters.
  6. Remove a portion of the younger stems, to leave a balance. The ideal is something like 20% less than 1” diameter, 60% 1-2”, 20% larger than 2” diameter.
  7. Bear in mind that the fruit buds are plump – don’t remove more than 50% in total, but don’t fret about removing up to this number. If the bush carries too much fruit, berries will be small, branches break and bush reserves get depleted.
Layering a blueberry branch to propagate a new bush.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Here’s information from Pruning Blueberries in Small Fruit in the Home Garden from Virginia Extension

“Until the end of the third growing season, pruning consists mainly of the removal of low spreading canes, and dead and broken branches. As the bushes come into bearing, regular annual pruning will be necessary. This may be done any time from leaf fall until before growth begins in the spring. A mature blueberry plant should produce three to five new canes per year.

During pruning, clean out old, dead wood, and keep the three best 1-year-old canes. Locate the oldest canes and prune out one of every six existing canes; cut as close to the ground as possible. A mature blueberry bush should have 10 to 15 canes: two to three canes each of 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old canes (fig. 3).”

Figure 3

Figure 3. Left, unpruned blueberry plant. Right, after
pruning, a mature blueberry bush should have 10 to 15
canes.

Blueberry flowers.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

More Blueberry Resources:

  1. Blueberry Production Guide (NRAES-55) 1992, Pritts and Hancock
  2. NRAES-055_ePub.epub   (10.54Mb)
  3. Cornell 2022 Organic Production and IPM Guide for Blueberries, Carroll and Pritts
  4. Strik, B.C., D. Bryla, and D.M. Sullivan. 2010. Organic Blueberry Production Research Project. eOrganic article.

Other small fruits still available in February

Dried and frozen fruits, jams, jellies, chutneys, other preserves, or even stored apples and pears come into their own this month. Pawpaws can be eaten frozen like ice cream. Don’t eat the skins, and don’t eat cooked pawpaws, or you may get Tummy Trouble.

Wintergreen berries persist on the plants in the wild all winter, but don’t taste good at the end of the winter, though, so do a taste-test before harvesting lots. If you are allergic to aspirin, avoid wintergreen because all parts of the plant contain methyl salicylate, an aspirin-like compound.

Other fruit care in February in the mid-Atlantic

Summer-fruiting raspberries: cut out old canes (last year’s fruiting canes), Thin new canes (that didn’t bear fruit last year) to 6 per foot of row (ie at least 2” apart). Weed. Water.

Fall raspberries: Prepare future new beds. Plant new canes with compost. Mulch around them. Set new T-posts for trellising once the new canes start growing. In existing beds, cut all last year’s canes to the ground and dig up canes from aisles. Weed, compost, mulch.

Don’t let this happen to you: A frosted strawberry flower with a black center.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Strawberries: Remove any winter hoops, polypropylene rowcover or slitted plastic and clips. Plant a new replacement bed if not done in August or September. Restore paths if needed. Weed. Compost if none in August. You could keep the rowcover handy for the flowering period, to cover in frosty weather. Or you could pack it away while you tidy up the beds and paths, and get it out again once you see flowers.

Rhubarb: Weed, compost around the plants, or where you think the plants are! Mulch if not already done in the fall

Grapes: Weed. Spread compost. Install irrigation. Prune: 50 buds per vine. Prepare sites for new vines.

 

One thought on “Fruit for the Month: February”

  1. Pam, I don’t see blackberries mentioned. I prune mine in Jan & Feb. When do you do yours? or do you not have any? That seems difficult to believe given how much they like to grow in our area… 😉

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