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The mystique of growing blueberries.

Last month, it was a privileged journey for me as I headed past Pakenham, turned off at Moe and drove about an hour up into the hills to visit my friend Joel, an organic blueberry farmer. Being winter, to some people these mostly leafless plants just look like big woody bushes, ranging from 3 foot to 6 foot high. A closer inspection however showed that they had been pruned meticulously, many of them every year for over 15 years. The grower, his wife and first hand man had done most of the pruning, as no contract worker could be trusted to do this process quite as well as those that lived and breathed these plants almost every day of their lives. These plants were to these people what a dairy herd might be to a farmer. They were part of their extended family.

Joel and his beloved plants.

To prune a blueberry plant requires two processes: firstly remove the weak wood – thin twiggy bits that will never thicken up, but will still suck energy from the rest of the plant. You also follow the basic principles of pruning like cutting out inward growing branches, although sometimes At one stage, Joel left a branch growing into another branch, as next year it would be a main branch and the other older one in its way removed. That is because secondly, you remove some of the old wood. It will be three to five years old and will be grey in colour and have formed bark on its trunk. Removing some of this will help the plant renew itself with new whips forming. The best fruiting wood will be in that two to three year age bracket. These plants will live for twenty five years and more, so to renew the plant is important. Some of the big 6 foot plants were taking Joel over twenty minutes to prune just one plant, such is the dedication to a perfect wine glass like figure.

Here is a brief video showing just a snippet of the secrets of pruning a blueberry bush.

Pruning doesn’t feel as natural to me as say on an apple tree. I think this is because the blueberry plant is quite a messy looking plant with a rather twisted and knarled structure. If you like things to look neat and tidy, this plant may not be for you.

A beautiful plant structure

You have to admire someone who makes the decision to produce fruit organically. There are no weed killing sprays you can use and so all you can do is compost around the plants to smother the formation of weeds and then hand weed around the plants to be rid of the worst of them. Between the rows you need to mow regularly so as to stop the weeds from seeding. It’s a case of learning to live with the weeds.

Magnolia in the front and Legacy at the backFeeding organically is done twice in autumn and twice in spring using liquid seaweed and fish emulsion. Organic growing is more about building up beneficial micro-organisms in the soil. They break down the compost and turn this into nutritional food for the plants. It’s all about finding the balance and not upsetting it by adding ‘made to measure’ dosages of chemical fertilisers. The results achieved from this crop speaks for itself – up to 8kg of berries per plant which is twice the amount of most commercial crops.

If you would like to grow some of these wonderful blueberry varieties, we now have some for sale. By nature, blueberry plants are hard to propagate and most of them go to the commercial growers, so you won’t find these plants commonly available. We also sell organic Charlie Carp – a fish emulsion that also benefits our rivers because of the removal of thousands of carp every year.

When planting out blueberries, Joel recommends teasing out the roots and having them almost horizontal when planting.

Plant them on a small mound in the bottom of the hole, just to angle the roots downward slightly.

This does not feel normal to me as I am not a big teaser of roots unless a plant in a pot is root-bound.

Joel’s dad has however spent many years analysing plantings and swears by this process. In fact he dug up some earlier plantings and teased the roots and then re-planted the plants with great success.

Here is a picture of the teased out roots.

Varieties we have for sale:

Magnolia: Evergreen bush that grows to approximately 1.6m tall, will bush out to 1.2m wide has a large berry, great flavour & heavy yield.

Reveille: Evergreen bush that grows to approximately 2m to 2.2m tall, very upright plant that will only bush out to 0.8m to 1m, great for along fences. Medium berry with great flavour & medium yield.

Legacy: Evergreen bush that grows to approximately 1.8m to 2m tall , will bush out to approximately 1.2m wide, has a large berry, good flavour & heavy yield.

James and a pruned reveille variety

 

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