Here are some questions that I have fielded over phone, at the farmer's market, and here at the farm and nursery. It would be great to read through them, for this is where some of the most useful information can be found....
Q: Are your plants organic, and non-GMO?
A: YES YES YES. We are certified organic, which means we cannot use GMO or GMO-derived products. Every inch of our operation and farm are inspected regularly to make sure we meet the standards set by the National Organic Program of the USDA. And, I am an ardent advocate of chemical-free, open-pollinated, heirloom farming practices. Don't trust the USDA? Then you can trust me, because I grew up on a conventional farm, and have seen first hand the environmental, societal, and emotional harm caused by chemical usage in our country.
I cannot and will not support companies such as DuPont and Monsanto, which are bent on the destruction of our great country's family farms and agricultural lands.
Q: When is the best time to plant berry plants?
A: The short answer is right after you get them. With our potted berry plants, they can be planted anytime of the year, so long as you can work the soil. The spring planting/fall planting protocols have more to do with bare-root plants than anything else. Remember, potted plants have an intact, fully functional root system, ready to give full support to the above ground stem and shoots. They undergo minimal transplant shock for this reason, and so can be planted anytime, even when dormant. For summer and fall planting, just make sure not to forget your newly placed berry plant if you have a dry spell.
Q: Is there anything that bothers
blueberry plants, like pests or diseases?
A: Yes, there is always something out there waiting to take a knock at your plants. But, for the backyard berry producer, these are rarely a problem. Insect pests and diseases are usually found in areas where large acres of blueberries have been planted, as these are great places for population explosions of pests. Keeping your plant cultivars and growing habitat diverse are the best insurance against high levels of pests and disease. It works very well on our farm.
Q: Will the birds eat all my berries?
A: They will nail your blueberries if they are not netted, and they will go after the black raspberries as well (these are the first berries to ripen). Blackberries on our farm are only mildly hit, and the red raspberries show no bird predation at all. Robins are the worst, as they will form gangs and ruin your plants. Catbirds and Brown Thrashers will get some no matter what you do, as they are a determined intelligence (all they have to do during the day is figure out how to get IN there!). My father-in-law noted that, once the blueberries started producing, he began to see bird species that he had not seen since he was a boy.
Q: Where can I get bird netting to keep birds off
A: Garden centers, home improvement stores, nurseries, and online gardening supply stores carry them. I have been using a 30% shade fabric, which can be purchased online at companies like A.M. Leonard. They sell various widths, but I get the 14 or 20 foot widths, for use over single or double rows, for instance. It is twice the price of regular netting, but is so much easier to use, and lasts for many seasons (I have some on our greenhouse that is over 8 years old, and still looks good...I defy anyone to produce traditional bird netting that old that is still usable for keeping birds off berry plants!).
Q: Do certain trees bother berry plants?
A: The black walnut will kill blueberry plants, but will not bother blackberry or raspberry plants (the brambles). Shade can be good in hot climates (zones 5-8), but make sure it is afternoon shade for raspberries (blueberries do fine with either). As for blackberries, full sun=full sweetness. Even the slightest bit of shade seems to make them sour.
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Q: How often should I water my berry
A: That depends. Established plants (at least 2 years in the ground) should do fine with seasonal precipitation, but plan on irrigating during dry spells. This will insure proper bud set for next years fruits. Less consistent watering won't kill them, but your overall yield potential may diminish. As for new plants, water every week, unless you have a good soaker (a 1" rain) during that week. Hot, dry weather means watering twice a week, even with a good mulch. Watch the plants. Brambles will wilt at the tip if they need water, as will the new growth on blueberries. Severe water stress on blueberries (either too much or too little water) shows up as browning, dying tissue on leaf margins. In heavier soils you can overwater, so make sure you plant them in a well drained spot (or raised up about 8" if the ground is poorly drainig).
Q: When will I see blueberries on my
A: Most of our cultivars should have some fruit on them the year after you plant them, with each year seeing more berries. Blueberry plants' peak yields occur at ages 8-12 years, then drop a bit to stabilize over the following years. Most cultivars are very precocious, making more berries each year until they hit their stride. The plants you get from us are 2 years old (from cutting) and should produce some fruit the following year. In 6 more years they will hit their maximum production, given adequate care. There is no need to remove berries while the plant is young, especially if you are following our planting/growing guides. You can see the flower buds easily on a blueberry, as they are the buds that are very prominent (the vegetative or leaf buds are small and recessed).
Q: When can I expect to see raspberries?
A: The fall bearing raspberries, also called everbearing, should produce some fruit the year you plant them. This fruit will appear on the new growing cane. Expect more the following years, as the plant builds up its root system and crown. With the fall red raspberries, I have had a full-cropping row the year after planting (2 ft spacing used). I usually cut these down to the ground in December, ensuring quality harvests the following July-October. Purple, summer red, and black raspberries (as well as blackberries) will start to flower and fruit the year after you plant them. On these brambles, only cut out the canes that have finished fruiting, and any spindly new canes.
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Q: Can I use compost and rotted manure
around my berries?
A: These amendments are fine for brambles, but they really do not need that much nitrogen, so opt for compost over manure. Never use these on blueberries, as these materials tend to raise and balance pH (usually a good thing), thus eliminating the acidic pH that blueberries require to thrive.
Q: When should I prune my blueberry?
A: Generally, it should need no pruning for about 3-4 years after you plant it. Let it grow and build its root system, becoming strong so that it can better regenerate after pruning. The exceptions to this are for broken branches, dead tips, and spindly or horizontal growth near the base.
Q: How often should I fertilize my
A: We do it once in late March (zone 5), then again in late May or early June for our production bushes. We also foliar feed every other week after the weather has warmed until early June. It is unwise to fertilize after July, especially with organic fertilizers, as they tend to prevent the plant from hardening-off (get ready for winter) properly, which usually results in 2-3 inches dieback on every branch tip. Foliar kelp is OK once or twice after fruit is picked, and I usually do this at a half-rate application.
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Q: Why are my blueberries leaves turning
A: They do this for different reasons. They turn red in the fall, of course (and orange/yellow), and that is expected. If it is spring or summer and this is happening, your pH could be too high and/or they are not getting enough nitrogen. I usually put a couple full shovels of peat moss around each plant in the spring, along with its annual spring fertilizer treatment, and I have never had this problem in my production bushes. I am more likely to see it in potted nursery plants, as pH and nitrogen can rapidly change given increased watering (leaching nitrogen and raising pH) and temperatures (increased plant growth with not enough nitrogen).
Q: Why is the new growth on my blueberry plant pale
A: It needs iron, and may not have an acidic enough pH. Usually these two go hand-in-hand, as iron becomes more available to blueberry roots as the pH decreases to 4.5-5.0. First check soil pH, for if it is too high (above 5.5) no amount of iron addition is going to help. If it is acidic enough, then add an iron fortified fertilizer amendment, or drench with a couple gallons of STRONG stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) tea. This herb is LOADED with iron, in a very available form for plants and people. Again, following the planting guides provided with your order and on our website should steer you clear of these types of issues.
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Q: Keith, what is your favorite variety and
cultivar of berry?
A: This is a question I often get, and it depends on the day to how I answer it. Lucky me, I usually say, because I get to grow all the different kinds, plus some rare ones. Most of the berry plants we grow have at least one attribute I feel sets them apart, and makes it worthwhile to grow. Of course, I do get some customers at market who don't buy the "All my children are beautiful and special" line. So today, here it is: my favorite lowbush is Polaris, my favorite northern highbush is Blue Moon, southern highbush is Sunshine Blue, Joan J and Jaclyn top my raspberry list, and Triple Crown has consistently impressed me. Favorites list subject to change. Don't tell the other cultivars...
Q: Which kind of berry plant that you sell would
you say is the most productive per plant?
A: Some customers want production, and any berry will do. For that, I have a simple answer: Triple Crown blackberry. This plant has by far outstripped every other plant on our farm in per plant fruit production, save the watermelons (remember our springs usually do in our tree fruits, so I don't count them as producers on our farm). We have had up to 22# from one plant, and I have seen results even higher in other, more amenable growing areas.
Q: For a first time berry grower, which of the
berry plants that you sell would be good to start with, meaning less
work and more fruit?
A: Of all the plants I sell, the Fall Red Raspberries are great for first time berry growers. They are very easy to plant, will usually produce a light crop of berries the year you plant them (which is encouraging), and they have a simple maintenance: cut them to the ground before spring. Late frosts do not affect Fall Red Raspberry fruit production, as they haven't produced any flowers yet (that happens in late June). We have never had any bird predation on our Fall Raspberries, either, so there is no need to net them (like the blueberries). Removal of canes in early winter also reduces the chance for insect pests and diseases to pop-up next season, as most of these n'er do'wells overwinter on the canes. This will help your patch to stay healthy for many, many years (we have one that is going on 10 years with no sign of any disease).
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Q: Some of your plants are heirlooms. What
does that mean?
A: An heirloom is a plant cultivar or variety that has been maintained for at least 50 years. There are not many heirloom berry plants available, as the older cultivars are replaced by newer ones. I am working with a Michigan propagator to acquire plant material form the ARS USDA germplasm bank of old blueberry cultivars. Many of these old cultivars are used in breeding new ones. Running their tissue through a virus indexing process will provide virus free stock. I hope to be offering these old time cultivars in the near future.
Blueberry plants like very acidic soil conditions.
Just planting them in your native soil will often provide you with
Our native soils here are heavy clay, which is too thick for the expansion of blueberry roots. We also have a soil pH in the range of 6.2-6.7, which is too high for blueberries to thrive. They won't die, but will linger on, growing with an almost stunted look, and not flowering. For best results, please follow the planting guide directions on our website.
Lowbush blueberries seem to tolerate a wider pH range here at our farm, and are also more scrappy, doing well in the more rocky soils we find on some of our hillsides. I still get better growth and production from them when I use the planting methods described on our website.
Waiting until the soil has warmed to plant raspberries helps them to establish strongly the first year, with very little stress. I dig our starts, pot them, and grow them out until June. When I plant them into the ground, they seem to literally explode with growth, and the fall bearers usually put on quite a nice supply of large, sweet berries.
I have planted potted brambles as late as October, and have had 100% overwintering survival.
More on the way.