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.

Fruit for May

Flowers on a two-year-old strawberry plant.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This is the first of 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.

Strawberries are the focus fruit for May

May is the month in our climate, to harvest and weed strawberries. Actually weeding strawberries in bare soil is a job that needs doing once a month from February to November here! We don’t have any strawberries in our gardens this year. Once upon a time, we grew matted rows, where you keep the same bed in production for multiple years, removing the oldest plants to make space for younger more vigorous plants. Weeds were our downfall. Once you let weeds seed in a strawberry bed, you have lost the battle. In our climate, we have cold-weather weeds and warm weather weeds. Semi-permanent strawberry beds get them all. I wouldn’t choose this method again.

See ATTRA Strawberries: Organic Production available free online, for a wealth of information. Updated April 2021.

Strawberries need a lot of weeding if grown on bare soil.
Photo Twin Oaks Community (Renee)

Harvesting strawberries

I recommend harvesting three days a week, in the mornings, once the dew has dried, to avoid spreading fungal diseases. Use shallow containers, although strawberries don’t crush as easily as raspberries. Turn each ripe-looking strawberry over to make sure it’s ripe underneath too. We will harvest with white tips, but not green. Commercial strawberries that will travel long distance are harvested ¼ green and arrive very red, but with not much flavor.

Nip through the stem of the fruit with your nails and set the fruit in the container. Also, now or preferably separately, collect up any moldy or bird-bitten fruits to compost. It’s better not to handle healthy plants after moldy fruit, but if you have dry weather and not many moldy ones, it’s very tempting to remove them as you go. When “Mouseberry”, our nickname for Botrytis grey mold, is only a minor problem, we just hurl each one as far from the strawberry bed as we can, rather than collect them up.

Unblemished strawberries can be stored for several days in the refrigerator. Do not wash before refrigerating, as this leads to rot. If you are planning to process lots of strawberries for drying, jam, juice or other value-added products, I recommend finding a simple little tool, a pair of round-ended tweezers about 2” (5 cm) long and ½” (1 cm) across. You can twist our the green tops quickly with minimal wastage.

A dormant bare root strawberry plant.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

When to plant strawberries

In case you don’t yet have strawberries, and now wish you did, here are some considerations about when to plant. Many gardening books are written in more northerly climates, where bare-root transplants are set out in early spring. But then it is necessary to pinch off the flowers the first year. And still weed once a month! We found it better here to plan for September planting of runners we had potted up in July, leaving them attached to their mother plants until time to make the new bed. They are less likely to die if still attached to the well-rooted mother plant. Fall-planted strawberries do not need to have the flowers removed in their first spring. It is not easy to find bare-root transplants to buy in the fall.

In Virginia, many commercial growers plant new strawberries on plastic mulch every year, buying in plugs. The costs are covered by the high price that strawberries bring in when sold. We were not selling, but feeding our intentional community. This means that produce that would get high prices doesn’t repay us for the time spent. We need nutrients for a well-balanced diet, not fancy stuff. This issue also came up for us when we grew ginger in our hoophouse. Tasty and enjoyable, but not lots of food for the space and time.

Newly prepared strawberry beds with landscape fabric.
Photo Wren Vile

As a balance, we settled on keeping two beds (one early variety, one late) for two years each, using landscape fabric with holes melted in it. Each year we would make 1 new patch, till in the older one after 2 harvests. Some years we bought plants, and we also figured out a good propagation method, which gave us plants when we needed them, without too much money or labor. We had backup plans in case we failed to propagate enough replacements.

In early June we’d prepare new beds if going for bare-root plants; after fruiting we’d dismantle the two-year-old bed, renovate the one-year-old bed, and in early July prepare the new bed if using plugs. We did the propagation of our own plugs during July, setting up a misting tent. We planted the new plugs in early August. I’ll go into detail about these tasks when we get to that time of year.

Patented varieties

Some varieties are patented and it is illegal to propagate your own without permission from the patent holder. It’s most illegal to sell plants you have propagated from a patented variety. Technically, it is also illegal to propagate for you own use, and even to let strawberry runners root themselves beside a mother plant. Not all varieties are patented. Cornell has a page Patent Status of Select Strawberry Varieties with info for varieties that do well in NY State. It includes when patents expire. StrawberryPlants.org has a lot of information, including an interactive variety list. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include info on which are patented.

We cover the new strawberry bed in newspapers and hay. Our method prior to using landscape fabric. Note the drip tape in position below the mulch.
Photo Luke Stovall

Climate change, challenges and options

Our climate is variable, and is changing to more of all extremes, so we need to change our systems to meet the challenges. It always helps to have a plan B.

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Fruit still available in May

If your rhubarb flowers, cut off the flower stems, preferably before the buds open, to keep the energy for the stalks.
Photo Pam Dawling

Rhubarb can be harvested until the stems get too thin. April is its main month here in central Virginia. Weed and water. Lop off any flower heads or buds, to concentrate energy into the stems.

Other fruit care in May

Install blueberry netting before the fruit sets, so the birds will have no reason to be interested. Weed, water, top up mulch, as needed. Check periodically to ensure the netting has no holes.

Grapes: Mow, weed, water in drought. Mow aisles as needed. New vines: remove side branches from trunks, and fruitlets. I like to walk through in May to record the condition of the grape vines.

A young grape vine in early May.
Photo Bridget Aleshire