How we raise our berries!
Raising strawberries is a year round endeavor and it takes two years to get a crop. They are a labor intensive crop to grow, requiring attention to detail every step of the way. In April or May of the planting year, we plant dormant crowns of plants. We remove any flowers that emerge from those new crowns. We do this so the plant can put its energy into creating a larger mother plant and producing daughter plants which bear the crop the next year. We spend hundreds of hours trying to keep the weeds at bay through hand weeding, and we lightly fertilize them three or four times. In June, when the days are at their longest, the plants will put out runners which form a new (daughter) plant at the end. The original plant and rooted runners form a matted row of plants. We use drip irrigation on the plants to supply water during dry periods and we just try to keep the plants as healthy as possible. In August, we collect leaf samples and have them analyzed to determine how the plants are doing nutritionally. If adjustments are needed we apply the necessary nutrients in September. We also narrow the rows in September to a width of 12”. This prevents too much competition between plants for water and nutrients the following year when they produce fruit. It also allows the plants and fruit to dry out faster, reducing the potential disease problems. The shortening day lengths cause the plants to produce the flower buds for next year’s crop. Shorter days and colder temperatures make the plants go into dormancy during the fall. After we’ve had several nights of twenty degree temperatures and the strawberry leaves turn red, signifying dormancy, we put straw on the berries. We usually do this during the weekend after Thanksgiving. It’s a great way to work off that turkey dinner!
In late March, we rake off the straw mulch, and put row covers on the early varieties to try and speed up growth to get ripe berries to you earlier in the season. We survey the field and try to determine if there was any winter injury which may have damaged the plants. We hope for some warm, but not hot, temperatures to help move the plants along in their spring development.
The most critical time during the spring development is when the strawberries are in bloom. Since the blossoms open towards the sky, they are most susceptible to freezing temperatures during bloom. If the temperature drops below 30.4 F, the blossoms freeze and will not produce a fruit. During bloom time, we pitch a tent on The Berry Patch farm about 25 yards from the strawberry patch. On clear nights, we sleep in the tent, getting up about every 1.5 hours to check the temperatures at several locations in the strawberry patch. When the temperatures hit 34 F, we head to the pond and get the irrigation sprinklers going (we hope). By constantly applying water to the blossoms, we get the latent heat of freezing to protect the blossoms. When water turns to ice, it releases heat. By having this process constantly occurring through constant water application, the temperature of the blossoms is held between 31 and 32 F, thereby saving the blossoms and our crop! One of us stays up to watch the pump, the sprinklers, and the temperature. We need to keep the irrigation on until the air temperature rises above 32 F. The longest we have irrigated in one night is 8.5 hours (two nights in a row), from 11 PM to 7:30 AM. The plants and flowers get about ½ inch of ice on them in this time period but the flowers are still ok. In 1997 and 1998 we had to do this for seven nights in May. In 1999, we had to irrigate eleven nights. So each year in May we start praying that we will have cloudy nights so the temperature doesn’t drop too much! In 1998 we had 27 F on June 4th. The fruit can stand temperatures down to 27 F for a short period of time, so the crop was ok, but it sure gave us a scare.
It takes between 28 and 35 days to go from flowers to ripe fruit, depending on the variety and the temperatures. During the fruit growth and ripening period we keep the plants watered with our drip irrigation system. We do not fertilize the fruiting plants before harvest as it can cause soft fruit.
After harvest is complete, we mow the leaves off the plants, narrow the rows to 12”, apply fertilizer, and water. The plants put out new growth and we start the cycle all over again. We will keep a planting for three fruiting years if it is in good shape. Then we plow under that planting, plant a cover crop and grow some other crops on that piece of ground for at least three years.
We are experimenting with a different system for part of our 2000 crop. We are growing some of the strawberries on black plastic mulch to see if we avoid the huge expense of hand weeding. The drawback is that we have to cut the runner plants off the strawberry plants in the establishment year - still a labor intensive task. We hope to get a good crop of our famously sweet, big, juicy strawberries from this new system. We want to get feedback from you regarding the berry quality and ease of picking with this new system.
Raising raspberries is a time intensive process. We planted tissue-cultured plants in the spring of 1996. The small plants produce a few flowers the first year, which are removed, so the plant can put its energy into producing canes. Weed control is a constant battle through the life of the planting, but especially during the first year, because the raspberry plants don’t get big enough to shade out competing weeds. We lightly fertilize the plants after they get established and keep them irrigated through the summer. The young plants will produce one to three full size canes during their first year. We start cutting back on the water around the first of August to help the plants start to harden off for the winter. Raspberries are very susceptible to winter damage and if we let them grow vigorously into the fall, they will not withstand the cold winter temperatures we get.
If the canes make it through the winter they will produce a small crop during their second year in the ground. They produce a much larger set of canes during their second summer. Weed control, fertilization, and irrigation continue during the second year, much as it did in the first. In the early spring of the third and successive growing seasons, we prune the plants. We take out all canes that fruited the previous year, that died over the winter, that show signs of disease, and that are smaller than the diameter of a pencil. Once we’ve done that, if there are more than five canes per square foot, we thin out remaining canes and leave the five largest, healthiest looking canes we can find. We often remove 80 - 90% of the canes in this process. The remaining canes are then attached to a trellis that is wider at the top than at the bottom. This creates a V shaped canopy which gives the plants greater ability to intercept light. This makes the berries sweeter! Now you can understand why it is a very time consuming, labor intensive process.
After the harvest period is over, we just try to keep the new canes that have been growing all summer as healthy as possible. They are the canes that will produce the berries the following summer. The canes have a better chance of making it through our severe winters if they go into dormancy in good condition. The shorter days of September and October make them slow down growth. They are usually dormant by mid-November, ready for their winter nap.
The fall raspberries bear fruit on the tips of first year canes so we try to encourage lots of vigorous, new canes each year. The canes could produce a crop during the following summer, but neither the quantity, nor quality of fruit meet our standards, so we manage the canes for just the fall crop. The canes of the fall berries are left standing through the fall and winter. Research has shown that they continue to transport carbohydrates to the roots into December of each year, so we don’t want to cut them too early. The standing canes also help catch some snow for better winter protection of the roots. In March of each year, we mow off the old canes, lightly fertilize the area, and wait for new canes to start growing. We keep them irrigated during the summer to produce nice, large, healthy canes, since large canes are more likely to produce sweet, large fruit.
Harvest begins in late August/ early September and lasts until we get a hard frost, usually between mid-September and early October.
Blueberries take about eight years to get into full production, so we are just starting to market our blueberries. We planted our first plants in 1996. Young blueberry plants are very expensive, so to save money, we got the smallest size plants that we thought would survive. Consequently, it took them a while to get to production size, so we just harvested our first blueberries in 1999 (just a baby crop). We expect our harvest to grow each year for the next several years, until we reach full production. The 1999 crop, although small in number, were large, sweet berries. We had several customers comment that they had never seen such beautiful blueberries.
Blueberries require quite a bit of pruning in March and April to remove diseased wood and small, twiggy, unproductive growth. They require acidic soil, so we are constantly monitoring the pH of the soil and making necessary adjustments. They grow better when they have a good thick layer of sawdust, or other organic mulch, around the roots. We are plugging away at getting sawdust put around all 300 plants that we have. We irrigate, using drip irrigation, many times during the summer, as they do not tolerate dry soils at all. As with the raspberries, we need to cut back or stop irrigation around the first of August, so they start to harden off for the winter. Besides actual tissue freezing from cold weather, cold injury pre-disposes them to several canker diseases, which can shorten the life of the planting. A vigorous, disease-free, well maintained blueberry planting should live for forty years or more, so we are working very hard to try and get this planting off to a very good start.
Birds are a major problem when raising blueberries, so we have invested in enough bird netting to totally enclose our half acre planting of blueberries. Otherwise, we would not get a single berry! The plants look good so far, so we are hoping for a beautiful berry crop this summer. Please plan to come visit us at "The Berry Patch".