Little Blueberry, Big Deal

3/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Kate E. Matthews South-Central Pa. Correspondent

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Blueberry growers gathered, rookies and old hands, from across the Mid-Atlantic, to be schooled on the do’s and don’ts of blueberry production at the Penn State Extension Blueberry Growers School.

“We are all niche growers,” said Steve Bogash, PSU regional horticulture educator.

Blueberries grown small-scale are big sellers for their rich antioxidants and locally grown specialty market.

“I never have enough blueberries for everybody,” said David Schreck of Iron Ridge Farm in Spring Grove, Pa.

Schreck and his wife operate a pick-your-own operation with three acres of blueberry bushes. He said they have learned by experience to prune, fertilize and maintain their plants. But, what really matters in the end is taste.

“If the berry is too tart, it doesn’t work,” he said.

Acidic Is Better

Blueberries need acidic conditions; the soil pH should be between 4.5 and 5.2. They are in the same plant family as rhododendrons, mountain laurel, cranberries and huckleberries, and grow naturally in the area’s swamps, bogs and forested understory.

Before planting blueberries take a few things into consideration. Kathy Demchak, Penn State senior Extension associate, suggested that growers start working their site a year before the plants go in the ground.

Make sure the soil is well-drained with sufficient moisture, as you will want to install a drip irrigation system, she said. You will want high organic matter and low nutrient content, so don’t overload with fertilizer.

Blueberries do not work well being planted after many other fruits, but buckwheat and grasses are good cover crops to prepare the soil, she said. Test the pH of the soil one year and six months before planting.

“You get your pH right; everything else is easy,” Bogash said.

He said it is important to have your own pH meter. Calibrate the meter at least once a year, refresh the batteries, make sure it compensates for temperature and invest in a water-proof carrying case, he advised.

By adding powdered citric or sulphuric acid to your water you can also affect the pH of your soil.

“Acid is hard, but this is really worthwhile,” Bogash said.

Pruning is Prudent

“My boss found me pruning blueberries the other day,” said Marty Jolin of Twin Springs Fruit Farm in Orrtanna, Pa.

“ You’re doing it all wrong!’ ” he told Jolin, and promptly sent him to blueberry school.

In most varieties, you should prune down to the newest, strongest 10 canes per bush, and be aware that if you overfruit one year, your production will decrease in the following year, Bogash said.

Pruning can do wonders for a struggling blueberry plant, said Mark Ehlenfeldt, research geneticist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service at Rutgers University.

If you take off 40 percent of the buds, there should be no effect on yield; you’ll just see bigger berries. And don’t be afraid to cut back a struggling plant until only the crown is above the soil, as this can be “surprisingly invigorating” to the plant, Ehlenfeldt said.

Which Variety to Plant?

Blueberry varieties are numerous, and choosing can seem overwhelming. Ehlenfeldt has some answers. He suggested to start small and take the time to experiment with varieties to find the best suited to your operation.

“Location, location, location is what it’s about with blueberries,” he said.

Pay close attention to pH, drainage and the microclimate of your planting spot.

“Bluecrop is the one to start with,” he said.

It is the classic midseason variety with that typical blueberry flavor you have come to expect. You can get several harvests per year; the fruits are not firm but are fine for local consumption.

Bluecrop’s downfall is it is susceptible to anthracnose, but it is resistant to most other diseases.

“Duke is maybe as close to a perfect variety as we have,” Ehlenfeldt said.

It is the best early-season cultivar being highly productive with crisp fruit, but oftentimes Duke can be criticized as having a bland taste.

For a better-tasting early variety, try Sweetheart, but be ready for lots of pruning and small berries.

If you are going for pure blueberry taste, plant Cara’s Choice. This variety gets Ehlenfeldt’s vote as the “best tasting, quite delicious” berry. Cara’s Choice will produce less quantity but higher quality than the machine-harvest varieties. It is moderately susceptible to anthracnose.

Plant Draper for a better taste than Duke and good storage, but watch out for mummy blight. Reka has a slightly spicy flavor, can thrive in a variety of soils and is a vigorous producer.

Legacy offers both quality and quantity, and is relatively disease-resistant. Plant in protected, mild areas.

For late season varieties, Ehlenfeldt suggested Liberty and Elliott. Liberty tastes better but tends to overproduce small berries, which means you will need to prune effectively.

Elliott is very high in antioxidants, has a tart taste and high productivity, but is susceptible to an unknown vascular disease that may make the berries shrivel on the plant.

Razz is a soft variety that tastes like raspberry and is best-suited for pick-your-own farms.

Pink Champagne is a better pink variety than Pink Lemonade in this northern clime.

Protect the Berries

Peter Oudemans, associate professor of plant pathology at Rutgers, said it is up to all growers to protect against chemical resistance by knowing your FRAC codes and applying fungicides responsibly.

A FRAC code groups fungicides by chemical type so you do not apply the same chemical in different brands.

Cesar Rodriguez-Saona, Rutgers entomology specialist, said insect pests can be controlled in your blueberries with proper monitoring, trapping, integrated pest management and pesticide application.

For a comprehensive guide to pest management, fungicide application and the science behind blueberries, access Penn State’s Mid-Atlantic Berry Guide online and resources from Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Extension.

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