Blueberry fields forever…… Part one of the three part FGF Blueberry Installation Project saga is complete. We efficiently and quickly established a planting of nearly 5000 bushes. Soil has been monitored for 1 year with pH readings running at average of 5.0 through the field with 4.8-5.2 being the optimal range. Our initial planting is comprised of three varieties that are all harvested within 5 weeks of each other, are better adapted to heavier soils, and can all be managed as a mechanically harvested planting. Preparations for the second planting are being made.
Draper, Bluecrop, and Jersey are our first varieties. An excellent opportunity presented itself which will allow us to begin harvesting in year 2 rather than the normal year 3. This is due to the size container our bushes were grown in as well as the quality of the transplants. Bluecrop and Jersey are standby commercial varieties that yield an average of ten lbs per bush in peak maturity which occurs in years 5 through 15. Draper is a licensed new release variety bred at Michigan State, with much university testing behind it. It is part of a new class of berries that are designated as “crisp”. This crispness allows for exceptional mechanical harvest characteristics as well as an unprecedented fresh shelf life in common storage. All are well suited to freezing for year round use.
Now we begin the process of orchard management. Blueberry plantations require specific management in order to foster correct growth – harvest, annual pruning, fertility management, and mulch management which is especially important in organic blueberry production. Nearly all operations are carried out in order to keep the soil pH balanced and in optimal range. The only management practices we have to consider in the next year are mulch and alley maintenance, irrigation and fertility.
Mulch– We invested in quality landscape fabric which will suppress weeds, allow gas exchange, fertilizer exchange, and water penetration. Over the winter we need to use sawdust as a patch mulch where cuts were made to plant the bushes. Sawdust is inexpensive but consideration must be taken as to the type so we don’t undo work towards acidifying the soil. Pine chips will be best for this.
Fertilizer – Certain types of fertilizers and specific timing are required to effectively promote even growth, preserve pH, and avoid disease. Mushroom compost and composted poultry manure both have nutrients in the form required by the bushes. Fertilizing takes place in early spring and directly following harvest, not in fall. Fall fertilizing may delay the bushes from entering a safe dormant state where they accumulate the required “chilling hours” for proper flowering.
Alley Ways – We planted a smother crop of rye to suppress winter annuals and next years summer annuals. I will either mow or roll and crimp the rye at an appropriate time. Also required will be periodic applications of organic herbicides to prevent the need of mowing close to the landscape fabric and risking tears. That will be a 10inch band near the mulch edge. Late summer of next season, the alley will be planted to an annual pasture that includes traffic tolerant grasses and soil building legumes. We will attempt cropping these alleys in the future in hay. It is important to manage the whole planting, not just the beds where the bushes grow. If we do not maintain soil pH across the alleys, the soil will actually begin wicking away the pH from the beds raising the pH to unacceptable levels or requiring heavy application of acidifiers.
Irrigation – We were blessed with no need to either water in the bushes or irrigate. A lot of this has to do with the mulch as well as the size of the planting stock. In March, we will install the permanent drip lines so as to be ready for the summer. The addition of future plantings will require a gated system to keep pressure up. We should cover the irrigation line with a layer of sawdust to protect from sun damage. Periodic application of organic algaecide and pH reducing acidifiers will be required through the life of the system.