It’s berry season, one of my favorite times of the year! Berries have always been my favorite fruits, with blueberries being right at the top of that list. Growing up, we had some close family friends that had beautiful gardens that I always admired. As these friends neared retirement, they decided to plan for a u-pick berry farm to supplement their income after retirement. They put in hundreds of blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, and strawberry plants. Over the following years, as the plants matured and before they opened the u-pick farm, we were invited each year to come and pick all the berries we could carry, in our buckets and our bellies. I have fond memories of sitting under the bird netting on several lazy summer afternoons with my young son as we ate just as many berries as we put into our buckets. We would smile and laugh with juice stained lips.
I feel very fortunate to have had these experiences and credit them with my love for growing berries. I longed to have berries in my backyard so that I could have these experiences closer to home. So, in 2012, it became the year of the berry in the Hubbell gardens! We planted a raspberry patch, strawberry patch, and a small blueberry patch with four tiny highbush blueberry plants. While the raspberries and strawberries flourished, my favorite, the blueberries, struggled. We had tucked the bushes into a small spot in the yard with not much thought about what they needed, expecting them to produce bucketloads of berries magically. Well, that didn’t happen. For four years, I watched them struggle. They would get leaves each year but never produced a single berry. I kept telling myself that perhaps the bushes were still too young and just needed more time, but eventually I couldn’t deny any longer that they were not getting the care they needed.
I didn’t want to give up on my dream of growing the North American native. So, in March of 2016, we decided to take drastic measures and go all-in on our blueberries. We transformed a struggling perennial garden, occupying a sunny location on a hill, into a blueberry patch. Only this time, I did my research. I discovered that blueberries love acidic soil, and after having our soil tested, I was encouraged to find that our soil fit the bill. We decided to purchase six mature bushes that were already several years old to get an earlier harvest. Following the planting, fertilizing, and care instructions to the letter, we were delighted to pick our first berries that summer! It may have only been a handful, but it was momentous to me, a final realization of a dream.
The new bushes did so well that we decided to move the original four struggling plants into the patch with the others the following year, and to our astonishment, they flourished. The poor things were finally getting all of their needs met and showed us how thankful they were by rewarding us with their first crop of berries. We also purchased an additional two mature bushes, bringing our total to twelve bushes, including the early-season Duke, Earliblue, and Reka, the midseason Bluecrop and Blueray, and the late-season Liberty and Elliot. These varieties allow us to harvest berries from late June until mid-August.
Growing blueberries has undoubtedly been a learning experience from the beginning. We’ve had to learn what the bushes require to thrive and preserve the berries once they appear. For years we tried different methods of keeping the birds at bay until last year, in 2019, we finally purchased enough highly visible bird netting to enclose the entire patch, using posts to keep the netting above the bushes. It was a worthwhile investment, as we had our best harvest yet, picking just under 50 pounds of blueberries last season!
Harvesting that many berries has expanded our culinary horizons and it turns out that they are marvelous in baked goods, made into jams, jellies, or syrups, or just eaten straight off the bush. Whichever way we eat them, it is a treat. There is nothing like picking fresh fruit that you grew yourself.
This year we have already harvested over ten pounds of berries in the first two weeks of the season. It looks like we are on track to beat last season’s record! My belly and freezer are full, as well as my heart. The blueberry patch is my favorite part of my gardens, bringing a smile to my face and a feeling of peace and tranquility to my soul every time I step inside. As I pick from the bountiful berry bushes, I transport to a time when I laughed under the netting with my young son with juice stained lips. Now, I laugh with my husband as we pick side by side. He grew up enjoying the wild lowbush blueberry varieties with his family in Maine, but I think I’m getting him to appreciate the highbush types as well. I can tell that the blueberry patch is also his favorite part of our gardens. He has even affectionately named one of our Bluecrop bushes, “Big Bertha,” as the bush produces berries the size of quarters! He takes extra special care of “Bertha.” When we are together harvesting blueberries, I feel that I can share my love of gardening with him.
My quest to grow berries, started back in 2012, was finally completed this year by planting a blackberry patch. With a little luck, in a few years, we’ll be picking all of my favorite berries in our gardens, and my dream will finally become a reality. I am thrilled that I can step outside my door and harvest fresh berries, especially my favorite, the blueberry, during the berry season. For the next two months, you’ll find me under the bird netting, laughing and smiling, most likely with juice stained lips.