Highbush Blueberries: Grow Them for More than Their Fruit

For the first time in several years, the vegetable and small fruits garden is ready for winter before Thanksgiving.  The beds where garlic cloves were planted in late October are mulched with straw, along with the shallot bed and the two strawberry beds.  Carrots await digging beneath a thick blanket of straw and the long asparagus bed is covered with a two-inch layer of composted goat manure.  Looking out an upstairs window in the room where I write, the tapestry of dark brown manure and pale yellow straw speaks of quiet order, a garden put to bed for the winter.

It is a study in emptiness except for the conspicuous multi-stemmed highbush blueberry shrubs, their upright, spreading, silver-gray branches holding twiggy red shoots against an icy blue November sky.  They will stand stolidly in their beds through the coming winter as snow piles up around them.

When I pass these winter blueberry shrubs on my way to the compost pile at the back of the garden, my thoughts fast forward to early spring when Marjorie will prune each dormant plant, scrutinize its potential for fruiting and form before removing dead, damaged, and diseased branches, and well as spindly side branches with only a few flower buds.  She will cut away the witches’ brooms, dense masses of short, thick, twisted stems caused by a fungus that relies on balsam fir, of which there are plenty in the woods around the garden, as a secondary host.  When she is done with the pruning, we will renew the compost mulch around each shrub.  All of this before the leaf buds break dormancy.

Native bumblebees are the primary pollinators for blueberry flowers.

Native bumblebees are the primary pollinators for blueberry flowers.

Later, in June and July, we will go to the garden to watch native bumblebees pollinate blueberry blossoms as they forage for nectar.  They are a joy to watch as they forage from first light to last, stopping to rest only in a cold rain when they seek refuge under a leaf or flower cluster.  One chilly morning we found an immobile bumblebee that spent the night on the last flower visited, too cold at dusk to fly to its underground nest, and we watched as it found its legs in the sun’s warmth.

On a dewy morning in August, when the branches of the shrubs are bending under the weight of ripe fruit, Marjorie and I will walk through wet grass to the garden, each grasping a mug of steaming coffee in one hand, a bowl for berries in the other.  Holding a cupped hand beneath a cluster of berries – some further along toward full ripeness than others – and moving my fingers over the berries as if tickling the bottom of a child’s foot, the ripest berries will break the fragile connection with their slender stalks and fall into my hand, dark purple-black fruits bursting with sweetness.

Highbush blueberries ready for tickling.

Highbush blueberries ready for tickling.

We will both eat a few berries as we work, some of them imperfect from the pecking of blue jays that sit in the top of the nearby wild cherry, squawking at the interruption of their feast.  The bowls filled, we go to the kitchen for breakfast.

 

 

 

Highbush blueberry autumn leaves

Highbush blueberry autumn leaves

The blueberry shrubs delight us again in October with their scarlet red and golden yellow leaves.  This autumn color at a different level lasts until the first hard frost when needles of ice cover the leaf surface.

 

 

 

 

Blueberry leaves on the morning after a hard frost.

Blueberry leaves on the morning after a hard frost.

 

The blueberry harvest is one that we share with white-throated sparrows, blue jays, robins, black-capped chickadees, mourning doves, and other winter birds, as well as the garden’s chipmunks.  One year we tried deterring the birds with netting but quickly took it down when several sparrows and a chipmunk became tangled in it.  We are happy to trade berries for the white-throats’ song and the chipmunks’ antics, never feeling short changed.

In addition to birds and small mammals, highbush blueberry serves as a larval host for several lepidopteran species, including the brown elfin, striped hairstreak, spring azure, and hummingbird clearwing butterflies, and the major datana and saddleback moths.  While I have yet to encounter all of these caterpillars in Marjorie’s Garden, the adult butterflies are common nectar feeders there.

One late mid-August afternoon, Marjorie came in from the garden with a bowl of berries and announced that there was an unusual caterpillar on one of the blueberry shrubs.  I rushed to the garden with camera in hand and took several shots of the creature as it munched a blueberry leaf.

Highbush blueberry is one of the larval hosts for the paddled dagger moth caterpillar.

Highbush blueberry is one of the larval hosts for the paddled dagger moth caterpillar.

Typically when you find one caterpillar there are others of the same species nearby, but a thorough search of all the garden’s blueberry shrubs did not turn up another like it.  The back of its coal black body was lined with orange and white football-shaped pads, each sporting a slender black filament with a paddle-shaped tip.  That evening I keyed it out as a paddled dagger moth larva, Acronicta funeralis.

Whenever I find a new species in Marjorie’s Garden, I try to understand how it fits into the garden food web.  In the case of the dagger moth caterpillar, I learned that highbush blueberry was but one of several host plants for A. funeralis.  I might also find it feeding on alder, apple, birch, dogwood, hazel, maple, oak, or willow, all of which occur in or around Marjorie’s Garden.  I also learned that our sighting of this creature was a rare event, that some lepidopterists go their entire life without seeing the larva of the dagger moth caterpillar.

What eats the paddled dagger moth caterpillar?  Do the paddle-tipped hairs deter birds, or is this rare creature another example of what bird food looks like?  I could not find answers to these questions, but I did add Acronicta funeralis to the list of creatures with whom we share Marjorie’s Garden.

A Great Way for Maine Gardeners to Get Started with Highbush Blueberries, Strawberries, and Asparagus

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener Volunteers are offering a “Grow it Right!” plant sale in 2014 to raise funds for its Master Gardener Volunteers program. The educational aspect of this special project sets it apart from other plant sales.  Purchasers will receive expert advice on growing blueberries, strawberries and asparagus at every stage, and a take-home package of instructions from Extension staff and Master Gardener Volunteers.

The Master Gardener program has been active in Maine for more than 30 years. UMaine Extension Master Gardener Volunteers have assisted dozens of community gardens across the state, grown food for the Maine Harvest for Hunger program and conducted many other community-based volunteer efforts. Money raised will support those projects and provide scholarships to those who cannot afford the Master Gardener Volunteers training fee.

Gardeners in Maine can support the project by ordering a high-bush blueberry plant pack, consisting of three young plants, two varieties per pack, for $35.95; or a pack of 10 asparagus crowns for $15.00; or a pack of 25 young dormant strawberry plants for $15.00. Each type sold is suitable for Maine’s climate and is in a growth stage ready for planting in the spring.

For more information about this project, visit its website: http://umaine.edu/gardening/master-gardeners/benefit/.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)