Fruit for the Month: June

Blueberries.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

This is another post in my new monthly series, about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate. I’ll talk about planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. I’ll have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month. We do grow apples and pears, and some other tree fruit, but I’m not writing about those as I don’t have much recent experience.

Blueberries are the focus fruit for June

June is the month in our climate, to harvest blueberries. Blueberries are a great crop to grow, as they are not troubled by many pests or diseases (apart from birds). While you are harvesting take notes (or photos) of the various varieties you have, and when and how well they are producing, so that you will know which ones to propagate from in the winter, if you want more.

See my article about blueberries in Growing for Market magazine

See ATTRA Blueberries: Organic Production available free online, for a wealth of information from choosing varieties, planting, details on pests and diseases you might encounter. Updated 2022. Also search the ATTRA site for other info on blueberries, such as soil management (blueberries need acid soil), living clover mulches, and honeybees and alternative pollinators.

Harvesting blueberries

Blueberry harvest. Note “berry bucket” hanging around the worker’s neck. Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

I recommend harvesting two days a week, in the mornings, once the dew has dried, to avoid spreading fungal diseases. Blueberries don’t deteriorate or over-ripen as quickly as softer fruit, so if you can only find time once a week, that will be OK. Or if you are selling blueberries, once a week may work better for your sales. Blueberries don’t crush as easily as strawberries or raspberries, so if you have lots you can put them in buckets or crates. We usually harvest into homemade berry buckets with long rope handles, that we can hang around our necks, freeing up both hands for picking berries. Our berry buckets are made by cutting plastic gallon jugs and adding rope through holes we punch near the top. Full berry buckets get emptied into a bigger bucket.

Only pick the berries that are purple-black all over. Check the back of each each ripe-looking blueberry to make sure it’s ripe all over. The area around the stem is the last to change color. Really ripe blueberries will “tickle” from the bush into your hand

Do not wash fruit before refrigerating, as this leads to rot.

Types of blueberries

We grow Northern Highbush blueberries here in winter-hardiness zone 7a (suitable for zones 3-7) and we like to have a crop we can harvest standing up!  There are also lowbush blueberries, which are popular in cooler climates, such as Maine. Rabbiteye varieties are better to the South, in the region roughly south of Interstate 40 (mostly zones 6-9). Rabbiteyes are taller plants, with smaller berries than highbush types. A new hybrid type, Southern highbush, is adapted to the southern rabbiteye zone and the coastal South (zones 6-10). Look into these if you are in the right area: they have a lower chilling-hours requirement, and flower and fruit earlier than highbush or rabbiteye varieties. As the climate changes, fruit growers are challenged by traditional crops no longer getting enough winter chilling hours to fruit. (Chilling is the number of accumulated hours at temperatures below 45°F/7°C in the dormant season.) Balance this with your changing frost dates, as earlier flowering will not be an advantage if your last frost is going to cancel the fruit. Remember that all blueberries are self-fertile but will produce better crops if you plant several compatible cross-pollinating varieties.

Young Blue Crop northern highbush blueberry.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

At our farm, Duke has been a very reliable early fruiting highbush variety, whereas Spartan has not worked out. We like to have several varieties with different ripening dates, to extend the harvest. Blue Crop, Blue Jay, Elliott and Chandler also do well here. If I was starting over, I’d also try some Southern Highbush varieties.

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.

When to plant blueberries

If you are planning to plant blueberries, here are some considerations. Generally you will want o buy young bushes and plant them in the dormant season. In warm areas, plant in late fall so the plants get roots established before your early spring thrusts them into opening buds. In cooler zones, plant in early spring, so that winter does not kill them.

New blueberry plant with winter wire mesh protection. Photo Kathryn Simmons

As with all perennials, clear the area of perennial weeds the previous year, and reduce annual weeds, for instance by growing a good cover crop, which will smother emerging annual weeds and also feed the soil. Get a soil test, and follow the recommendations to amend the pH to 4.8-5.5 using sulfur in spring or fall before planting. I like the pelleted sulfur, that looks like lentils, because it is easy to spread, and no dust gets in your lungs. Depending on your soil type, you might need 430-1750 pounds of S per acre, or 1-4 pounds per 100 sq ft. Work in some good compost before planting.

Plan space between the rows that will let you walk, mow or whatever you need to do even once the bushes have reached full size. 8-12ft is recommended. Ours are a bit closer than that. In the row you can either plan for a hedge effect, or leave yourself access space. You can plant blueberries on raised beds or wide ridges. You can move bushes later in life, if you find they are competing too much.

Blueberries six years after planting. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Plan how you will cover the soil. I recommend landscape fabric topped by bark mulch or woodchips. This combination works well to keep perennial weeds at bay (wiregrass!). If you are avoiding plastic, you can use double layers of overlapping cardboard topped by 3” of organic mulch: chips, sawdust, straw or spoiled hay. Blueberries don’t do well with plastic mulch that is impervious to water, as it encourages the roots to grow just under the plastic, where they can easily get overheated and die. Some people like to grow a living mulch, perhaps mowing it to mulch closer around the plants once it dries. A hybrid model has mulch in the rows and a cover crop between the rows.

Blueberries have shallow roots, so you will likely need some irrigation method. I like drip irrigation, but overhead sprinklers work too.

You will, of course, have some annual care to provide. Each spring, expect to provide some source of nitrogen and potassium, as needed.  I’ll cover that another time. Each winter, prune for strong branches and good levels of production, and remove any perennial weeds.

Blueberries showing Tenax fencing and basket balls on posts to support roof netting. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Pests to watch out for include big ones like deer, groundhogs, birds and uninvited humans. We have a triple fence, with wire netting in the ground against burrowing animals, 7’ tall Tenax deer fencing, and seasonally, Avigard flexible bird netting over the top. For our newer blueberry planting we make a temporary hooped structure and cover just with the bird netting, held down to the ground with 6” soil staples. This planting is nearer our buildings than the older one, and is not visited by deer or groundhogs.

Blueberry netting on PVC electrical conduit hoops. Photo Pam Dawling

Smaller pests include blueberry maggots, blueberry stem borers, cranberry fruitworms, cherry fruitworms, Japanese beetles, leafrollers, leafhoppers, and aphids. Our perhaps, like us, you will not be troubled by any of these.

Diseases include mummy berry, Botrytis grey mold, Anthracnose, stem blight, stem canker, rust, phytopthora root rot, Phomopsis twig blight, blueberry stunt and several viruses. A Cornell University blueberry diagnostic tool offers a step-by-step exercise to help figure out what diseases may be affecting your crop.

Propagate blueberries by layering a low branch, as you see here with Chandler variety. Photo Kathryn Simmons

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Other small fruits available in June

Two rows of floricane raspberries with a willow and grapes in the background. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Cherries, red raspberries, strawberries, Juneberries, gooseberries  mulberries. Blackberries, apricots, peaches, plums.

If you live in Virginia or nearby, see this produce calendar

Other fruit care in June

New grape vine in May. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Grapes: Mow, weed, water in drought. If you have young vines, remove side branches from the trunks, and fruitlets. Your goal is to first grow strong plants, then produce grapes after that.

Strawberries: Prepare for new strawberries in early June: Disk or till the area for new strawberries if using bare-root plants, and prepare the beds with compost, driptape, and landscape fabric.

June 16-July 16: If using bare-root transplants, plant new strawberry beds.

Late June/early July (after fruiting): Dismantle two-year-old beds. Renovate carry-over strawberries by mowing or shearing/clipping weed and mulch, but don’t compost them. . Plant new strawberries if using bare-root transplants, perhaps rooted runners in the paths of older beds.

Rainbow and Kathryn spread hay over the new strawberry bed. Photo Luke Stovall

All fruit: Water all fruit crops. Weed, mow aisles as needed. Weed and mulch rhubarb, lop flowers. Record condition and fruiting dates of new grapes, blueberries. Note best varieties.

My article on blueberries in the May Growing for Market

 

GFM_May2014_coverThe May issue of Growing for Market is on its way, and in there is my article about growing blueberries (and protecting them from all the other critters that want to eat them too!) I’ve mentioned our blueberries before, when we were weeding and mulching them this spring. Also they feature in my Twin Oaks Task List for the Month for April and June. And I wrote about the netting support structure we created for our new blueberry bushes. Here’s Bridget’s photo of that:

The netting on big hoops over our new blueberries. Credit Bridget Aleshire
The netting on big hoops over our new blueberries.
Credit Bridget Aleshire
Our older blueberry patch in the spring. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Our older blueberry patch in the spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Highbush blueberries are our most successful fruit crop. Our old patch of 40 bushes has some over 20 years old, still doing well. Our younger patch of 20 bushes is 6 years old. Right now they are all weeded, composted and mulched, and they are flowering. Soon we’ll think about putting the netting over the top to keep the birds out. It’s best to get the netting on before the fruit is anything like ripe, or else the birds learn that there is something really good in there!

Here’s our Twin Oaks Schedule for blueberry care

Late winter (January/early February for us):

1. Weed

2. Add soil amendments such as sulfur, if soil test indicates a need.

3. Add compost around the base of each bush if this wasn’t done in fall. Bushes will need 20lbs N/acre in the first year, rising by 20lbs/acre a year to 80-100 lbs annually for mature bushes. If the foliage becomes generally yellow (not just between the veins) then your plants are short of nitrogen. Another sign of nitrogen shortage is less than 6” of new growth on mature bushes. A third is reddening of the leaves, although this can also be caused by water stress.

4. Renew the mulch: we use two layers of cardboard topped by 3” of woodchips or sawdust. 6-12” is a better depth, if you don’t use cardboard. Cardboard works in humid climates, but could be too much of a challenge for the roots in a dry climate.

5. Plant new bushes if needed.

6. Repair fencing if needed.

Early spring (April. March if there’s a drought):

Check irrigation and run it twice a week. Foliar feeding with fish and seaweed emulsions can be helpful if the plants seem stressed. Weed.

Late spring (May-June):

When flowers are setting fruit, install the roof netting.

Harvest.

Summer (August):

Weed. Water (root growth is greatest in August and early September in our climate)

After harvest, remove and store roof netting, check that perimeter fencing will keep groundhogs and deer out.

Fall (September/October/November):

Prepare new beds if needed. Plant new bushes in November (or wait till February)

Weed, spread compost, add to the mulch, take soil tests.

Blueberry flowers. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Blueberry flowers.
Credit Kathryn Simmons
A cluster of blueberries. Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier
A cluster of blueberries.
Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier

As well as my article there are plenty of other good ones, of course. Andrew Mefferd has written about hoophouse tomato pruning. Not something we worry about here in steamy central Virginia summers, but people in colder climates do have to work quite hard to get good yields of presentable tomatoes. Pruning is part of that.

Chris Blanchard writes about determining farm labor costs and how to get good value for money spent on workers’ wages. Liz Martin writes from New York State about a new emerging pest – the swede midge – and how she has dealt with it. (Swedes are rutabagas by another name, in case you didn’t know). The Swede midge attacks broccoli heads as they are forming, not just rutabaga plants. Liz describes the lifecycle, and which broccoli varieties are most susceptible. The solution for their farm has been the 25gm weight ProtekNet insect exclusion netting made by Dubois Agrinovation. They got the best broccoli ever! The netting kept out fleabeetles and cabbage worms, as well as the Swede Midge. We, too, are big fans of ProtekNet for brassicas especially. It lets air and light throughbetter than row cover does, and so it is less likely to pick up and blow away in a strong wind.

And lastly, Gretel Adams writes about planning and organizing for sales of wedding flowers.

Lots to read, and plenty to do outdoors too. More on that next time!