by Henry Homeyer
CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – Have you ever wondered what would happen after a story ends? I have. The children’s book “Blueberries for Sal” came out in 1948 and has been a hit for 75 years. If Sal was four years old in the book, she must be pushing 80. I imagine she went to the University of Maine and got a degree in teaching. She probably married her college sweetie at age 24, and taught for six years before deciding to start a family. I bet she makes a mean blueberry pie.
The key to a great blueberry pie, in my opinion, is to let the blueberries dominate the flavors, not sugar. Pick a recipe, and mix the ingredients using less sugar than recommended. Maybe half, if it seems like a lot. Or if your recipe uses just a half a cup for six cups of berries, it’s probably fine. Add cinnamon, but more is not better. Sometimes I like a little cardamom.
The best berries for a pie are those you picked yourself. Even better are those you grew yourself. I’m picking blueberries now, and have some tips on how to get a good crop.
Paul Franklin and his wife Nancy own Riverbend Farm, a self-pick orchard with apples, pears, pumpkins – and 1,600 blueberry plants in Plainfield, N.H. Paul once told me that there are just three things to get right if you want lots of blueberries: proper soil pH, proper soil pH, and proper soil pH. That’s right, if you don’t have very acidic soil for your berries, you can still have nice bushes, but without proper soil pH, you will only get a few.
For most of us, a simple soil test done with a kit you buy at the garden center or hardware store will show that our soil is around 6.0 or 6.5 if not adjusted. But blueberries want a pH of 4.5 to 5.5 which is much, much more acidic than that. The scale is logarithmic, meaning each change in a number multiplies the acidity 10-fold. So a pH of 5.5 is 10 times more acidic than a pH of 6.5 and 4.5 is 100 times more acidic.
How do you adjust pH? Buy soil acidifier or agricultural sulfur and sprinkle it on the surface of the soil. If you have a thick layer of mulch to keep down the weeds, pull it back, then add your acidifier. Follow the directions on the bag as to how much to add once you know your soil pH. It may take two to three years to drop the soil pH to the proper level. And doing it now won’t affect this year’s crop.
What else should you do? Give your bushes room to grow. I did a single row and spaced the bushes six to seven feet apart. But they are a little crowded now, 20-some years later. If I were doing it again, I’d space them farther apart. It’s best to run your row east-west rather than north–south to avoid one plant shading another. Full sun is best, but six hours of sun is adequate.
Blueberries like moisture, but don’t plant them in soggy soil. Also avoid the top of a sunny, sandy hillside. I have mine not far from my brook, and they have done very well. When planting, mix in some duff from under evergreen trees because it will help acidify the soil and will also add fungi that encourage good growth. Pine needles make a great mulch if you have some.
Blueberries do not like weeds, so do a good job of pulling out the grasses and weeds in the place you plant your berries before you plant. And then add a good thick layer of wood chips around the plants to discourage weeds in the future.
Blueberries are pollinated by bees. And although some varieties are labelled “self-pollinating” it’s always bests to plant several bushes and at least two different varieties.
There is a terrible alien pest that has arrived in most parts of New England, the spotted-winged drosophila. This is an Asian fruit fly that lays eggs in good fruit, as opposed to other fruit flies which only attack over-ripe fruit. In a matter of days, blueberries can go from healthy to mushy and full of larvae. If you cut open a berry that has been infected, you will see the small larvae. At present there is no organic method for controlling them other than covering your bushes with a fine mesh too small for the fruit flies to reach the fruit.
If you are planting blueberries now, choose bushes that produce their fruit early in the season and avoid plants that mature later in the summer. Why? Some growers are finding that the fruit flies don’t show up early in the summer, so they are getting crops of early blueberries before the pest shows up. And buy the biggest bushes you can find – or afford. Blueberries are relatively slow-growing in our climate.
Birds can be a problem, too. I no longer cover my bushes with netting – I found too many birds got caught in the mesh, so now we just share. And unless you get a flock of cedar waxwings (which are voracious berry eaters), most birds don’t seem to be greedy. Last summer I enjoyed watching bluebirds feeding their second set of chicks with my berries.
I bet Sal (who had a close encounter with a mother bear in that wonderful book) had three kids, two girls and a boy. By now those kids would range in age 43 to 48, so her grandkids are either teenagers or in college. But I bet they all visit her in blueberry season for her wonderful pie. Her mother’s recipe, no doubt. Pie is always a good lure for grandkids, especially blueberry pie.
[Henry is the author of four gardening books and is a lifelong organic gardener. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.