By Bonnie Kirn Donahue
Editor’s note: Bonnie Kirn Donahue is a UVM Extension master gardener and landscape designer from central Vermont.
Strawberry season is reaching its end, which means that blueberry season is on the horizon.
Blueberries typically ripen starting in July. Depending on the variety, they can even ripen into September.
At this point in the season, the blueberries do not need a lot of care. While you are waiting for the plants to fruit, it is important not to make too many changes so that the shrubs can focus on berry production. Performing garden maintenance out of season, such as pruning, fertilizing or even mulching, could throw off the plants and impact your berry crop.
Bushes can be mulched after the fruit is harvested to help retain soil moisture at the end of the season. Mulching after harvest is also a good practice for burying any fallen berries that could have been infected by the fungal disease called mummy berry.
Fertilizer and pruning should be done in the spring. Check out cooperative extension resources for the exact timing of spring pruning and fertilization.
What you can do is to make sure that your blueberry bushes are getting at least 1 inch of water per week. Using an off-the-shelf rain gauge, or making your own out of a can and plastic ruler, could help you track how much rainwater your garden is getting each week, and when supplemental water is needed.
While waiting for your blueberries to ripen, familiarize yourself with the common diseases and pests that impact berries.
The most important pest of blueberry is the spotted wing drosophila (SWD). This small fruit fly lays eggs in ripening fruit, and the larvae hatch and feed on the fruit causing them to break down quickly.
Once the berries are ripe, another major challenge to growing blueberries is that they are beloved by many birds and animals. The options for managing wildlife grazing are unfortunately limited.
Covering the bushes with netting with holes less than 1 millimeter will exclude SWD and birds, but the edges will need to be secured at the base of the plants. However, netting can be difficult to remove when it is time to pick.
Another netting option is to build a support structure out of plastic piping or wood, so that the netting doesn’t rest directly on the bushes. This option makes it much easier to reach the bushes when it is time to pick. The downside is that it could be expensive and time consuming to install.
Some people prefer to leave their berries uncovered, and pick the blueberries early. The berries will still be a bit tart, but the birds will not be as interested until they are sweeter.
You could also just do nothing, pick what you can and enjoy sharing the bounty with the wildlife that passes through. They will certainly appreciate it!
After harvesting, you can keep your picked berries in the refrigerator for up to a week, or freeze them right away for longer storage.
I wait to rinse the berries until just before I eat them, so that the moisture doesn’t impact the shelf life or texture while in the fridge.
Blueberries can be added to muffins, salads and pancakes or baked into pies. However, they might be the most enjoyable eaten by the handful! The choice is yours. Enjoy!