)ExifII* Maine Farmhouse Journal Entry, Blueberry Season Approaches, July 15, 2001
Maine Farmhouse Journal

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Getting Ready for the Blueberry Season

June 15, 2001

Topics In This Journal Entry:

[Dances with Dragonflies] [Winter to Spring Overnight] [New Plantings]
[Weeding and Fertilizing] [Mulching and Irrigating] [The Farm Stand]

Dances with Dragonflies

The morning sun rose over the woods with a hazy, brassy look. It had all the promise of another painfully hot and humid day in Maine. We had been getting temperatures in the mid- to high-90s with humidity to match for the last few days - more like weather in Redding or Bakersfield than Maine. I was getting an early start on the morning's mulching to try and beat the heat. Later, when the heat drove me out of the blueberry patch, the west coast and my clients would just be getting to their work places. I could then retreat to the coolness of the office and concentrate on the day job. But the early morning hours were mine and there were a few hours every day to concentrate on getting our blueberries ready for the fast approaching picking season.

The blueberries had really responded to the fertilizer applied in early May, and the recent rains. Penny and I were admiring the new growth of leaves and canes on the bushes - in some cases 18-24" shoots.

She looked off toward the sun rising over the blueberries. "Look at all the bugs in the air!" she said. I looked where she was pointing. The air was filled with insects. Their wings shown and sparkled in the sun, and they flew back and forth over the rows of blueberry bushes.

The air was filled with dragonflies
- it was magical!

I first thought that the mosquitoes were going to be particularly fierce to me today - then I took a second look. "Those aren't bugs - they're dragonflies!" I said. "They're eating the mosquitoes and blackflies. Look at them - there are hundreds of them!"

All the rest of the morning, it was like magic in the blueberry patch. I had driven the Jeep down to the lower set of rows, pulling son Jim's trailer loaded with 5 cubic yards of mulch. As I shoveled the mulch between the bushes, a Mozart string concerto played on the car stereo. The mulch in the trailer was light and easy to shovel. The row of Jersey blueberries I was mulching was in the shade and the morning was still cool. The bushes were still wet with dew, and spiderwebs on the bushes hung heavy with it.

All around my head swirled dragonflies, swooping and soaring on the morning air. The chiton in their wings glinted green and black as the rays of the sun hit them. I stopped my mulching and just stood there, grain shovel in my hands, entranced by their aerial ballet. They seemed to be dancing in time to the Mozart! It was magic!

I had received 25 dragonfly nymphs a short while before and planted each one carefully in the leaf mold and litter near the barn. Bob had responded to an ad in the local shopper's guide, and had split some of his order with me. "Rid your back yard of mosquitoes" the ad had said "release dragonflies to eat them up!" I didn't have much faith in the ad - the mosquitoes were the worst I'd seen them in years. Our colony of little brown bats at the Farmhouse wasn't making a dent on the mosquito population, and I welcomed any help the dragonflies could provide to mosquito control.

It is not conceivable that the 25 nymphs I released had grown into the hundreds of adult dragonflies now dancing around my head, but I was not complaining. All morning long, I was entertained by their magic, and not bothered by one mosquito. When I finally finished mulching the row the sun had risen over the trees and I was working in the direct sun. The sweat was streaming off my brow so fast that I couldn't see where to spread the mulch, and I decided it was time to call it a day and headed for the Farmhouse. The dragonflies must have felt the same way, because the swarms of them dancing in the sunlight diminished to only a few.

Since that morning, they have entertained me several times. This is a new experience with me, and a totally delighful one. It doesn't make shoveling mulch any more fun, but it does help take my mind off the drudgery.

Winter to Spring Overnight

This winter's snow fall, just shy of 9 feet, is about average for our part of Maine. And I loved every snowflake of it. On a late March snowshoe trek after an 18 inch storm, Jim and I found that the snow was between waist-deep and shoulder-deep everywhere. If you fell down (or were pushed) it was nearly impossible to get to your feet without help. Everything was blanketed in white - including nearly all the blueberries. Some of the taller bushes, the ones that are nearly head-high, had their tops showing through the snow. But most of the blueberry patch was completely covered.

The end of March the blueberries
were nearly covered in shoulder-deep snow

The thick blanket of snow doesn't hurt the northern varieties of highbush blueberries that we have on the farm. It actually provides insulation from the harsh winter winds that blow across the field. We found some dessication and winter kill of the top branches where they protruded above the snow, but by and large the bushes survived the winter healthy and sound.

All winter long I have been reading all the blueberry growers guides on pruning, fertilizing, pests and diseases, irrigation, harvesting, etc. The northern highbush blueberry is supposed to be pruned when it is in a winter dormant condition. The experts all recommended starting to prune in late March in New England. Clearly they didn't have the winter of 2000-2001 in mind when they did so!

However, once spring got started this year it didn't dawdle. One day the snowpiles were as high as cars, and it seemed like the next day they were nearly gone. I had figured that I would have to start pruning on snowshoes, but by the middle of April the fields were completely bare. Son Allen and I were able to take some soil samples, which I sent off for analysis.

This year I was able to get
about 1/3 of the bushes pruned

Dot originally began planting these bushes in 1981, so they are 20 to 22 years old. In theory, blueberry bushes will remain productive indefinitely - if properly cared for. About 1/5 of the old canes should be removed each year, so that every five years the old canes are replaced by newer, more productive ones.

Pruning is an annual chore, to keep the bushes healthy and productive. If done annually, the chore is much easier and quicker than trying to bring the bushes back from no pruning for several years. Dot had been able to do a little pruning on the Blue Crop variety last year, but the entire blueberry patch has not been pruned for at least 6 years. It hasn't had a thorough weeding for probably longer, based on the size of the trees and bushes growing in amongst and often overtopping the blueberries.

I started in pruning the Berkeley variety bushes, and found that it took nearly 1/2 hour per bush to remove the old canes, the broken and malformed ones, the winterkilled canes, and to shape the bushes to encourage the newer and more productive canes. Along the way, I kept an eye out for the various pests and afflictions that attach northern highbush blueberries - mummy berry, stem gall, leaf curler egg masses, and witches broom. I was pleased to find that the blueberries were remarkably healthy. There is some witches broom which needs special pruning and watching, but nothing much else.

The pile of branches pruned
from the blueberries
made a burn pile 10' high

Witches broom is a gnarled growth of twigs on the branches or roots of the blueberry bush. It is a spore transmitted fungus whose co-host is the balsam fir. It will not kill the blueberry, nor affect the quality of the berries. It will weaken the bush, however, to other diseases and problems. Whenever I found witches broom I marked the bush with plastic flagging, and carefully removed the growth. Where the problem was extensive, in the blueberry root system, I dug up the bush. The witches broom growths and infected blueberry bushes were then piled on the big pile of pruned branches, and all was burned to destroy the spores.

New Plantings

The blueberries were originally planted 4' apart, in rows of either 150' or 250' long. Over the years, gaps have appeared in the rows as bushes were removed for one reason or another. Sometimes the bushes were transplanted to other locations, sometimes they died, and sometimes they were dug up and destroyed because of disease.

The table was stacked high with color catalogues from nurseries, each extolling the vigor and bearing potential of their bushes. I eventually ordered 300 3-year old bushes from Hartman's Nursery in Michigan - 100 for spring planting and 200 more in the fall. When I talked with Nancy at Hartman's Nursery she remembered selling bushes to the Farm before, and seemed to understand Maine weather and planting conditions.

Snow was up to the windowsills when I called her in early February. Planting seemed an eternity away. "And when do you want us to deliver these to you?" she asked.

"When do you recommend - spring is a long ways off here" I replied.

"Well, you're in Maine - we usually don't plan on delivering until mid-May at the earliest."

"That sounds OK - most of the snow should be gone by then. If it is still here, can I call and have you delay things?"

"Sure, just keep in touch." she said.

I was now committed. From first-hand experience I knew how stoney our ground is here, and also knew that I was not going to dig 300 holes using either a shovel or a post-hole digger. I called Ken's Tool Rental in Steep Falls and reserved his 2-man engine driven post hole digger with a 12" auger for a day when son Allen was going to be at the Farmhouse. It proved to be a man-killer. We got all the holes dug, but our arms were rubber when we were done. There were the usual share of small and big rocks, but no ledges. We dug the holes to 12" deep whenever we could, or less if not. I figured that I'd deal with the latter with a shovel when the time came.

Allen and I dug holes for new bushes

Just about on schedule, the UPS guy delivered a big box to the door in mid-May. The bushes were green, well packed and moist, and about 12-18" tall. Unfortunately, there were only 40 Elliotts. I had also ordered Blue Crop and Berkeleys. When I called Nancy she was embarrassed to admit that they were completely out of Blue Crop and Berkeleys, and had been for some time. The nursery crew never let the front office know, and Nancy had been taking orders for bushes they didn't have!

Planting plans got moved up a bit. Additional Elliott plantings were on the schedule for next year, but would go in just as well this year instead. She agreed to send along 60 more Elliotts, and these arrived in a few days.

With the holes already dug, it was a quick job to plant the 100-odd new bushes. I marked each new plant with a stake, and thoroughly watered them several times in the first few weeks that they were in.

Hartman's will ship the Berkeley and Blue Crop varieties the end of September, and I'll plant those this fall. The nursery says that a fall planting produces more vigorous root growth. I guess I'll have to wait and see.

Weeding and Fertilizing

Last fall I'd had David Handley from the Agricultural Extension Office walk the blueberry patch with me. He strongly recommended soil samples and fertilizing the bushes, controlling the weeds, and pruning as needed right off to restore the plantings to better vigor and productivity.

Highbush blueberries have a relatively shallow root system, and do not compete well with grasses, shrubs and other weeds for moisture and nutrients. The spaces between the blueberry bushes were choked with sweet fern, iron wood, and blackberry vines. In some cases the sweet fern and iron wood bushes were taller than the blueberries. Small maple, cherry, elm, and white pine trees grew all over, and in some cases were 10' more high. One white pine had a stump of nearly 3" when I took a saw to it. Under this all were a variety of ferns, grasses and forbs - a regular jungle!

Trimming the weeds between the bushes

I took pruning shears and hedge clippers to all the weeds, and pulled out the weeds at the base of each blueberry bush by hand. I then took our DR Trimmer to clean the spaces between the bushes down to the ground. By the time I got to this stage in the spring work, the black flies had emerged. A head net was the standard uniform for working in the fields to keep the little critters off me.

The soil surveys came back, and said that the soil was very low in nitrogen and the pH was a little high for blueberries. I went over to Metcalf's in Cornish and bought bags of 21-0-0 fertilizer, epsom salts, sulfur and potash. Working with the formulas and proportions from the soil surveys, I mixed up batches of 100 pounds at a time in a red plastic tub that I used to use at parties to keep the beer cold. With the postage scale from the book office, I found that Penny's stainless steel soup ladle would hold exactly 5 oz of fertilizer to a scoop.

I then attached the red plastic tub to the hood of my garden tractor with bungee cords, and slowly drove down the rows. Every bush got one scoop of fertilzer on May 12, 2001, and again 6 weeks later. Now I know that this system of putting on fertilizer is pretty crude, and my neighbor Tim Mayberry is probably cringing at my description of how I mixed and applied the fertilizer - but it works! I will probably work out something more efficient that doesn't involve using Penny's soup ladle. For now, however, this will do OK. The bushes have really responded well to the fertilizing - they are all healthy looking, with 18 - 24" of new, dark green growth.

Mulching and Irrigating

Although the DR Trimmer was efficient in removing the weeds between the blueberry bushes, I didn't relish the idea of mowing every couple of weeks forever to keep them down. Further, I was a little reluctant to use herbicides, like Roundup, to do the job for me. A little wind to carry the herbicide, a little spray on the blueberry bushes, and it would be good-bye blueberry bush.

The idea of a mulch laid down on landscaping cloth had a lot of merit. It would eliminate most of the weeds, and would retain moisture in the row that the blueberries needed during flowering and fruit setting. Just about anything can be used for mulch - grass clippings, sawdust, shavings. I found a 20' mountain of old, aged, planer shavings at Varney Point Lumber in Standish. Paul and I struck a deal, and I purchased 100 cubic yards of shavings from him. I borrowed son Jim's double axle trailer, and calculated that it would hold 5 yards of mulch if the load were rounded. All I had to do was bring the trailer down to the lumberyard and Paul or his boy would load it with their tractor for me.

Kim unloading mulch from the trailer

We put 75 cubic yards
of mulch on the bushes

I was able to enlist some helpers from up the road to unload mulch. And we did - nearly 1 mile of mulch, spread 3-5" thick on top of landscaping cloth cut to go around every bush. I spent most of my time on the ground, cutting the cloth and spreading it out. Kim, Daniel and Merlin were so quick with their grain shovels that I could barely keep ahead of them. When they weren't available to help, I spread it myself. On a couple of occasions sons Allen and Jim helped too - a real group effort. I ended up trucking in 75 yards of mulch, and we unloaded it a shovel at a time. A huge effort, but one that will pay good dividends in weed control. All 30 rows are now nicely mulched, and the weed control will be much easier.

There was a lot of rain last summer, and the blueberry crop was good. The summer before was hot and dry, and the crop suffered. It was clear that we needed to do something to guarantee about 1" of water on the blueberries each week during the flowering and fruit setting period of the growing season. There is never any telling what kind of a summer you are going to have - wet and cool, or hot and dry. Tim Mayberry showed me some drip irrigation tubing that he had purchased from an outfit in Australia called Queen Gill. I was familiar with drip irrigation from our garden and landscaping in California, and was interested. The tubing came 3,300' on a drum with dripper heads every 4". It would drip 32 gph/100" of tubing. I purchased 2 reels of the drip tape from a supplier in Pennsylvania that Tim recommended.

Digging the trench for the irrigation system

We wove the drip tubing through each row, and then covered it with landscaping fabric and mulch. The drip tubing was connected to a series of 1" plastic pipe laid in a trench from the house and divided into five zones. Paul made a wooden box where the controls for the five zones branched off from the main line. I put in electronic timers and set each zone to come on at a different time, and staggered to reduce the strain on the well. To provide 2 inches of water each week for the nearly mile of drip irrigation tape I figured would required 2,700 gallons. Not a lot of water, except that we are drawing off the house well and would completely exhaust the well if it were drawn all at the same time.

The rainfall this July was 9 inches below normal, and the newspapers are full of articles about how agricultural crops in general and blueberries in particular have suffered. The large wild blueberry fields in Hancock and Washington Counties are predicting a record low harvest because of the dry conditions. We're doing OK here, and the irrigation system has really allowed us to keep our bushes green and lush, and the berries fat and juicy.

The Farm Stand

The Sebago Volunteer Fire Company decided to sell the shed they owned for storing Sebago Days prizes in. I put a bid in during the winter, and was the successful bidder when bids were opened in May. The shed sat behind the elementary school, and my first look at it was from snowshoes. It looked ideal for our purposes - to be a farm stand for the PYO blueberry operation. It is 8x12 feet, board-and-batten siding with a green metal hip roof.

Once the ground had firmed up enough to drive one it was time to move it to the Farm. Tim Cook, a fellow fireman and owner of Lake Region Towing, winched the shed onto his flatbed automover without too much trouble, and we were off up the road. I had measured the height of the shed, to the peak of the roof. We calculated that the height of the shed, plus the height of Tim's truck, would put the peak just shy of 14 feet off the ground.

Tim Cook moved the shed to the Farm
on his auto transporter

It was an exciting ride, following Tim and the farm shed up the road. He's done all this sort of stuff before, and was nonplussed about the whole thing. I cringed, however, each time he passed under one of the phone or power lines crossing the road. There was no traffic on the road, so Tim was able to veer over to the pole side of every cross wire where the height of the wires was greatest. Even then, a number of them waved in the gust of air as the farm stand passed underneath! I really hadn't noticed how many wires there were on the 5 or some miles to the Farmhouse.

Once at the Farmhouse, it was a fairly easy job to lower the farm shed off the ramp onto cement blocks. I picked a spot out near the road where you can easily see the stand coming up and down the road. Later, Paul cut an opening in the end of the farm shed nearest the road for a serving window, put in shelves and a counter. On a tip from Tim and Carol next door, Penny and I had purchased a big white scale from a farmer in Denmark who was getting out of the PYO strawberry business. I installed the scales and cash register, and stocked the farm stand with empty quart containers and supplies.

When I dug the trenches from the house, they were big enough to run a water line, a power line, two Cat-5 phone lines (one for the phone and one for the LAN) and bell wire for a door buzzer that rings in the house when people come to the stand. With drinking water and water to wash out berry buckets at the farm shed, as well as power for the refrigerator, cash register, and lights we were just like downtown! I hauled out the refrigerator from the barn with a dolly to the stand. The icebox had been stored in a corner of the barn since our move from Albany. It was just the right size to hold 100 quarts of berries for our ready-pick customers plus a couple of cases of cold drinks.

The farm stand and picnic tables
awaiting opening day!

Penny and I used to pick strawberries at a place in Michigan where there were several different varieties of berries. The owner had a small stand at the edge of the fields with baskets full of the different varieties. Each variety was described (e.g. - good for jellies, freezes well, best eaten fresh, ...). You were encouraged to taste test each variety to see what you liked. A map pointed the way to the location of each variety. We thought this concept was a neat idea, and Paul made a little kiosk next to the farm stand where we could display sample berries. I made a map of the blueberry patch. Penny went through hundreds of recipes for blueberries on the internet and selected a dozen or so that were the best. These I posted on the back side of the map at the kiosk, and we ran off copies for people who requested them.

Penny and I had gone to the Maine Products Trade Show in Portland in February, and sampled and grazed our way through an assortment of jellies and jams, spreads and syrups. From the batch we selected some craft items and some Maine blueberry items that we thought would complement the blueberries at the farmstand, and stocked up with a small amount to see how they would go over with customers. Allen had designed some t-shirt logos, but we didn't quite get around to having those made. Maybe in another year?

We also went to the Maine Department of Transportation and had some "official" OBDS signs permitted, made up and installed to direct people to the blueberries. Steve, from the DOT office in Scarborough, was very helpful in the rather long and involved process. He also let me know that there is a agricultural sign provision in the regulations, and that we were also allowed to post our own seasonal signs along the highways. Allen was good enough to make up some signs on the computer, using Corel 9.0, and I had the local PIP printshop on Portland make up some blue 1x4' signs to supplement the DOT signs.

I went out with a post-hole digger and some old fence posts from the horse pasture, and posted these up and down the road. The road signs, plus the maps on the website and brochures, as well as the State of Maine "Pick your own" brochure listings and Maine Tourism listings, and the little ad that we ran in the Bridgton News "Summer Scene", all combined to bring hordes of people to pick blueberries. People showed up even before we were open for the season!

Signs point the way

We also designed a brochure and had Steve at Sebago Graphics make up a batch. My intent was to spread out brochures in little holders all around the Sebago Lake area, at every restaurant and grocery store, gas station and campground, summer camp and ice cream parlour. Everywhere that people congregate - especially those on vacation with time on their hands looking for some activity to entertain themselves and/or their out-of-town guests. As it turned out, I only covered a small area from Sebago Lake Station up to the causeway in Naples - and we had to turn people away! We were overwhelmed by the response! I wish we had four times the berries.

We look forward to a wonderful first season with our pick-your-own blueberry operation. There is a lot more to tell - but I'll save it for a future installment of the Journal.

Topics In This Journal Entry:

[Dances with Dragonflies] [Winter to Spring Overnight] [New Plantings]
[Weeding and Fertilizing] [Mulching and Irrigating] [The Farm Stand]

Allen Crabtree

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Last updated August 21, 2001

Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree