20190810_bta_Blueberries Weekender

Paul Hannan harvests a bumper crop of Spartan blueberries at his Butterfield Beef and Berry Farm in Calais this week.

“OMG,” started a recent email from my neighbor, Paul, who owns Butterfield Farm in North Montpelier. His beef and berry operation is inundated with blueberries this year, like nothing he has seen in years prior.

He was following up to his wife’s email, sent to the neighborhood earlier in the week, that included our local annual invitation to come pick our own blueberries for $7.50 a quart.

He asked us to ignore any casual tone his wife had inadvertently struck. They were desperate for people to come pick. He joked that, even though she had asked pickers to come between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., he didn’t care if people showed up at midnight. And he offered to lower the price to $7 per quart.

“This is a season to remember and some of you better come and pick before the berries start clogging the walkways,” he wrote.

My four-year-old daughter and I obliged, and showed up later that morning to pick nine quarts in less than one hour. Everywhere we turned, bushes were covered in blue. So much blue that it was hard to focus, and we quickly developed a method for collecting all the berries from a branch in one hand, then dumping them into our reused yogurt containers.

Paul is not alone in his overflowing rows of fruitful blueberry bushes this year. His pleas for help with picking and his awe at the incredibly productive season are being echoed throughout recent posts on Front Porch Forum and among neighbors at the local co-op grocery store in Plainfield. It seems summer’s juicy blue fruits have been almost maddeningly abundant this year.

“It does seem like a good blueberry season,” says Nicko Rubin, who owns East Hill Tree Farm in Plainfield. He sells fruit and nut trees and berry bushes, and offers pruning and tree care services.

“It’s awesome,” he adds about the stellar crop this year.

Rubin expects that this year’s bumper crop is due to a few factors: Spring was late, for one, and so the flowers bloomed later in the season on berry bushes. By that point, the insects were up and active and pollination happened at a high rate. The rain has also been consistent and evenly spaced throughout the summer so far, so these plants are getting plentiful water.

Last winter also included a high level of snow, which meant the moisture underground was maintained for thirsty blueberry bushes, so they came out of the winter stronger than they did in the year prior.

Blueberry bushes, Rubin says, do not operate on cycles of booming crops, like some other fruit- and nut-bearing plants. For these berries, it’s more a matter of the right conditions at the right time. Rubin says he has noticed the wildflowers are especially abundant this year, too, including Queen Anne’s Lace and Brown-Eyed Susans, which also require good growing conditions similar to blueberry bushes.

It’s an abundance we’re all happy about, if not a little overwhelmed. Our nine quarts of blueberries turned into several gallon-size freezer bags preserved, plus some hot-out-of-the-oven, melt-in-your-mouth muffins. A pie is in the works and, of course, many handfuls were eaten straight out of the container.

For growers, the abundance means not only good business, but also a need to take care of these plants after such a high-output year. Once these bushes are done fruiting, blueberry growers, whether they are commercial operations or backyard hobbyists, can do a few things to support their bushes, namely fertilizing and mulching, explains Rubin.

Interestingly, blueberries, along with apple trees, lilacs and other earlier flowering trees and bushes, actually begin setting buds for next year’s crop during the fall. The fall, therefore, is a good time to offer some extra care to blueberry bushes, especially after an all-out year like this one.

Maintaining consistent moisture is important.

“If it didn’t rain again this season, next year’s berries wouldn’t be so good,” says Rubin.

When it comes to fertilizing, he recommends an application of nitrogen for blueberry bushes in the fall, after they’ve dropped their last fruit, to replenish the plant’s energy. Seaweed or fish-and-seaweed combination fertilizers are best. Applied in mid-October, this extra boost of nutrients will help the plant store enough energy until next spring.

The bushes should also be well mulched in the fall. Blueberry bushes’ root systems have a higher moisture demand in the winter than other plants, and so a healthy layer of mulch will help the plants maintain good root systems throughout the winter. Rubin recommends mulching with wood chips, leaves or hay, but really any organic matter will do, he says.

Though blueberry bushes do require some effort to maintain and will take about five or six years to reach maturity with good blueberry yields, Rubin says it’s worth it.

He concludes, “Everybody should have blueberries.”

Sarah Galbraith is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine.

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