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A Noble Tradition, A Wonderful Discovery
Blues of Hues, Beads of Flavor
Best Popped Right Into Your Mouth


blueberries in basket











Blueberries are a common, and for many a big part, of our world here in the Upper Peninsula. They grow wild, lowbush inland, highbush along Lake Superior. I vaguely remember picking the low growing bushes as a young child. I liked the berries OK, though mostly I just loved being out in the woods. When Steve and I moved to our northwoods homestead we had wild blueberries all around us. For many, blueberry season is serious business. People were generous with berry locations, where to go pick, there are many favored spots. But as much as we both liked blueberries life was very full and time to go berry picking simply didn't arise.

bowl full of blueberriesFor sure we picked some, and still do. We wouldn't knowingly walk by a bush with ripe berries without sampling, maybe taking home a bag or pocket full. There are wild berries all around us, and delicious they certainly are. But it was more than 30 years before we settled in to really having blueberries. And that was when I finally added tame berries to my growing garden/orchard. Most tame berries don't have the high flavor of wild, or they maybe do have as much flavor it is just spread over a larger berry. Which is what makes them easier, and more fun, to pick. And having bushes right there in my garden certainly makes harvesting easier. Though to be sure they take care and maintenance. It's a trade off and one I'm happy to make. I like my blueberry plot, a lot, and it responds by feeding us generously with its wonderfully delicious blue fruits.

Since I wrote an extensive chapter in my "Growing Berries for Food and Fun" book on growing blueberries I'm not going to repeat all that here. So I'll just continue on where the book left off in 2016.

2022 - Wintered well, pruned late April. Many plants filling their space. Berries blueing mid July so put cage on. First fruit July 27, not much difference in ripening times between varieties. Overall very good crop! Ate a lot fresh and made sauce, canned some. August 22 about done, picked final 3 quarts. Many berries dropping, probably due to hot, dry July into August, and SWD. Plants look good, healthy.

#1-NorthCountry - Small (still young) but looking good with many berries this year. 1st harvest 7/24.

#2 - Northland - Spreading, touching sides of cage. Prune to 6 fruiting and 6 young canes.

#3 - Duke - Nicely upright though large enough to touch sides.. Only 2 small young shoots. Cut out one old with much winterkill leaving 6 varied ages. Some discolored bark on canes and some winterkill but did fine during season. 1st harvest 7/24.

#4 - Chippewa - 4 small young shoots and 1 small older, but still alive. Had good fruit set this year, mild flavor.

#5 - Blueray - Nicely upright. Doing OK but only 1 new cane, some winterkill. Cut out 1 1/2 old and 1 medium, leaving 9 total. Good harvest, next after the earlies.

#6 - Northland - Spreading, touching sides, almost to top. Good bush, thinned out. Usual good crop.

#7 - Patriot - Compact. Doing OK, some winterkill, little pruning. Good crop. [Patriot #9 that was removed '20 because it was doing poorly, replanted to east tree line, is now looking and fruiting great, with little to no attention or mulch!]

#8 - Northland - Compact habit - wonder if this isn't a Northland (other two are very spreading habit). Cut out oldest cane, Some new shoot growth, left one old, one medium. Doing OK, better than previous years.

#9 - Polaris - Small (young), many thin shoots, compact habit. Pruned out some many shoots. Some fruit, good flavor, small wild sized berries, early.

2021 - The plants wintered well, very little winterkill. Good summer growth, healthy, and a good crop. The blueberries apparently didn't mind the mild winter, the dry year, the hot summer. July 13 I noticed earlybird Duke with ripening berries so the cage was put on. With the late May feeze wiping out most of the tree crops the blueberry harvest was even more important than usual. And they came through very well. With the hot weather they all ripened early and in a smaller window of time. The first harvest was Duke on July 21; the last picking was August 7, except for a few handfuls later. We ate a lot of blueberries and I canned some for winter.

Chippewa was the only holdout, still alive but not thriving, with only one short older stem and one small young shoot. I'll give it another year. The new NorthCountry and Polaris came through winter fine, both with some blossoms. I thought I'd picked them all off but later found 8 berries on NorthCounty, early with Duke, medium and nice sweet. Polaris also managed to slip in a few berries, quite small but the plant is small yet. It has more of a wild plant structure with many small brushing shoots.

2020 - Pruned plants 4/24 - wintered well. Again didn't cover, and had a decent harvest. Ate a lot fresh and fresh sauce, canned some. That made good jam in the winter mixed with grape juice. In spring replaced #1 Bluecrop with NorthCountry (Indiana Berry). Replaced #9 Patriot with Polaris (Indiana Berry). Both plants were small but had good root balls. Polaris had, and grew, a lot of small shoots. Pruned out many. Most plants did well, except...

#1-Bluecrop'10 - Dug out - replaced with NorthCountry. Transpl. to east orchard spot

#4-Chippewa'15 - Not looking good. Cut out old and next old stems, left small newer shoots.

#8-Northland'06 - Cut out several stems, hoping it will perk.

#9-Patriot'06 - Dug out - replaced with Polaris. Transpl to east orchard spot

blueberries on bush2019 - The big story for this year was the lack of birds. This certainly didn't make me happy but it meant I didn't bother to put the cage on the blueberries, first time since we made and starting using it in 2014. It was a good harvest and so nice to be able to easily browse all season. Both BlueRay and one of the Patriot bushes had some fruit well into September. Along with lack of bird pressure was the much more welcome lack of SWD. There were a few mushy berries but not many. The SWDs pretty much stuck to the raspberries this year.

Most of the bushes are healthy and doing well. But two at the east end of the plot are looking a bit poorish, , a Northland and a Patriot, and I don't know why. The other bushes of those varieties are good (as these have been in the past). I'm hoping they perk next year. I might root some low branches of the better bushes as replacements just in case.

And the poor little Bluecrop I think is going to go by the wayside next year. Time to let it go. It did its best, putting out new growth and some fruit, but there was again a lot of winterkill and the berries small. I don't blame the variety, it may or may not be suitable for our cold orchard. But I will likely buy something else, there are many new and good sounding varieties to consider.

blueberry bushes in snow2018 - Each year is unique. This year I didn't prune until early June, working to get the low growers up and the high growers wider. They are all (except Chippewa) old enough now to be pruning out some of the oldest wood, encouraging new growth. There was little winterkill and all the bushes grew hale and hearty, except the struggling Bluecrop though it picked up steam later. It was a moderate crop this year; the majority were picked, eaten, and sauced by mid August. The last picking, except for some Northland, was August 20 when the cage came off.

Blueray was the winner for recovery from its early difficult start (it was a "rescue" from a local grower, potbound, neglected - it took ten years to catch up with its "healthy from the start" neighbors). It has turned into the tallest bush, tying with Northland for the largest and fullest overall, both needing pruning to keep them open, and within the cage. The medium-large berries have good flavor. Bluecrop, another poor purchase, is still struggling a bit but it's showing signs of improvement. It had a decent year and a light crop in spite of quite a bit of winterkill. It's definitely worth it to buy good plants from a reputable dealer, which thankfully most of my bushes were.

Three year old Chippewa had a small harvest this year but is still a rather small plant. It ripens its dark berries early with Duke (first ripe July 21). The berries on one of the three Northlands, the largest bush, were interesting in that the fruit on the south half were significantly large than those on the north side. Usually I don't see any such differences. 

2017 - Bushes look great this year, growing well, fruiting well. I did some pruning early May, about bud swell. When I got to picking I made a note to prune off the lower branches and get the bushes growing more upright. Some do naturally more than others but they all could use some encouragement in that direction.

blueberry bushes in cageBerries were turning blue July 21 so we put the cage on. Started picking some the end of July but the main harvest was during August, and it was a very good one. Though there was some difference in timing, Dukes and Northland first, the plants as a whole ripened together. From August 8 to 18 I picked about 15# mostly from 7 bushes.

Chippewa plant is slow to get going but it is only 2 yrs old. It had a small amount of fruit, darker than all the others and thankfully better tasting than the few fruits I got last year. Bluecrop is still having issues and had quite a lot of winterkill. I still debate with myself whether or not to remove it and plant something else. After so long I hate to give up.

By the end of August Northlands and Duke were done, they had done well. Blueray and Patriot still had fruit but Patriot in particular was showing the unfortunate mushy berry signs of SWD (Spotted Wing Drosophila). Darn. Mostly it was just the raspberries that had been affected up to now. But I'm glad it was this late. I took off the cage and went to picking the plants more often, picking them clean earlier than usual. No late berries to snack on this year.

Copyright Susan Robishaw

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Have you read  "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.

or "Homesteading Adventures"    Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.

and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun"   A journey you can use in your own garden.