Branching Out with Blueberries
DR. GLEASON L. ARCHER, now of Pembroke, Massachusetts, was born with the proverbial "green thumb." Although the founder of Suffolk Law School and Suffolk University in Boston, he is at heart a dirt farmer and dabbler in horticulture. Apple tree propagation caught his attention first, and all his odd moments were spent pursuing this hobby.
Then one day he discovered that cultivated blueberries were selling for $1 a box. Yankee thrift came to the fore, and he decided to shift his interests to blueberries. He would raise his own on his farm in Norwell. He tried—and failed! Being a determined man, he wanted to find the reason for his failure. Solving its mysteries became one of the aims of his busy life.
He spent his weekdays at the university, guiding with steady hand the school he had founded. He wrote books of law and history—nearly two dozen published volumes. But he always found time for his hobby.
IT WAS only by accident seven years ago that Dr. Archer stumbled on the "facts of life" of the blueberry. A friend had a well-established blueberry orchard with healthy bushes loaded with fruit. It was planted on a dark loamed terrace between two cranberry bogs. Blueberries require acid soil—as do cranberries. Dr. Archer had failed because he had used rich alkaline soil.
He then set about studying blueberry culture in earnest. A government bulletin gave him rather sketchy theories on the subject. Not very much material to go on. But it did contain a section on blueberry propagation. That fascinated Dr. Archer. Evidently here was a new field to explore.
He went back to the friend and asked him if he might have some soft wood cuttings to experiment with. The friend laughed, but consented. Together they went to the field and cut shoots that needed to be pruned because of overcrowding. Then gathering sphagnum moss from a swamp, Dr. Archer made a propagation bed near a cranberry bog—using sand and sphagnum moss as advised by the bulletin.
It wasn't a complete success. Out of every 500 cuttings only 200 took root. He wintered these in a cellar. The next spring he planted them in newly turned soil near the cranberry bog, but torrential rains and frost descended, locking the plants in ice. He lost most of them, but that was the beginning of his education as a blueberry grower. He had learned through failure.
AFTER FORTY-TWO years of intense activity in the educational field, Dr. Archer retired. He was then sixty-eight years old. But you can't put an active man out to pasture and tell him his days of usefulness are over.
"I'll start a blueberry nursery," he announced rather casually.
"What? At your age?" friends protested.
Protestations wore thin as Dr. Archer recited the merits of blueberry culture. They require little care when once started. They have few enemies, and sleep all winter. Once established they last a lifetime, not having to be transplanted like strawberries. Last but not least, the returns are good as an investment.
In July, 1948, Dr. Archer found a piece of land in Pembroke at "Brimstone Corner"—its name since Colonial times when a powder mill was located there. This land had never been successfully cultivated by man until occupied by Dr. Archer. The widow who owned it heard of his search for blueberry land and asked him to look at it. But there was a swale in the corner. He offered to buy all but the swale. The widow was firm—swale or no sale. After two weeks of soil testing he bought the land, including the swale, and the widow gave a sigh of relief to think she had unloaded such a useless piece of land.
But that swale proved to be the backbone of the nursery. The swale nuisance was abolished by the use of a steam shovel. It was turned into a pond 122 by 36 feet with a depth of six feet, uncovering five underground openings of spring water that had bedeviled the land for centuries.
The pond filled in two days. Except during heavy rains the water never rises above three feet. Since it is spring-fed, it never runs dry. It is a reservoir of great value since the peaty soil absorbs moisture from the pond and brook that flows from it. The bushes are heavily mulched, and as there are no irrigation problems, Dr. Archer's blueberry fields never go dry. Today his berries are bigger and plumper than the average of the same varieties.
The nursery has about eleven acres of cleared blueberry land with another five that are being cleared with the help of one field hand—a high school boy. After that Dr. Archer feels he can handle all the work alone except during the harvest season when more hands are required to pick the ripe fruit.
IT IS hard to believe that Dr. Archer started a few years ago with a few rooted cuttings and some older bushes for propagation material. Recently I visited the nursery, and there were thousands of bushes of all ages stretching away in the distance. There were tiny newly rooted plants that had just been set out and were bedded down for the winter under a thick blanket of pine needles. There were two- and three-year-olds—husky and ready for sale. One growing season is a year in blueberry language.
The bushes in the regular orchard now stand five and six feet in height, the new shoots scarlet and highly decorative. Dr. Archer makes hardwood cuttings from these plants in March when he does his annual pruning. In July the vigorous growth of the plants makes another pruning possible—the so-called softwood cuttings.
The rooting of cuttings is a difficult feat. Dr. Archer lost thousands before perfecting his method. To achieve this, he divided one of his propagation beds into six cubicles. In each cubicle he put a different combination of "propagation mash"—a mixture of sand and peat. Each section held cuttings of the same variety. Each received the same amount of water and light. By November of that year he had his answer. He took the two leaders of this first experiment and made further trials last summer. Results? Number one came through 100 per cent!
DR. ARCHER feels there is a great future for cultivated blueberries. He has learned from experience that quality berries sell at premium prices. The flavor, he says, is better than the wild variety.
The growing of new plants is hazardous for the beginner, but you can always buy your plants and raise fruit for home or market. Raising berries is a hobby that can start small and increase from year to year until you have established the size orchard you can readily take care of.
Cultivated blueberries properly mulched require very little attention or space. They do not throw out runners or form new plants like raspberries or blackberries. They just attend to business—the business of growing big, luscious blueberries.
The yield per bush depends upon its age and size—also the size of the berries. Bushes are set when three years old. If planted in the fall, they might yield a few berries the following summer. Bushes set in the spring should have their blossoms removed so that their strength will go into building up a vigorous root system. The plant must have moisture to produce berries, and moisture depends upon this root system. The sooner the plants get their feet established, the sooner you will reap the harvest.
On page 29, Farmers Bulletin No. 1951, issued by the United States Department of Agriculture, reports experiments in Michigan with cultivated blueberries that show results per acre. According to these statistics the second year after planting (plants now five years old—about 1,000 plants per acre), an acre of bushes will yield fifty pints of berries; third year, 200 pints; fourth year, 2,050 pints; fifth year, 4,000 pints; sixth year, 6,000 pints pet acre.
Blueberries are usually sold by the pint and packaged with a Cellophane cover bring up to 50 cents a pint, retail. If 6,000 pints netted only 25 cents a box, an acre would still bring $1,500. That is only three quarts per bush.
Dr. Archer's experience exceeds these figures. Only two acres of his plants have been in the field three years. According to these statistics he should have had only 400 pints last summer. He picked 2,000 pints from the two acres. Thus he produced five times as much as the Michigan statistics said he would.
There's an amusing incident connected with marketing these berries. At one time last summer the Archer records showed 1,100 pints had been picked but only 1,000 sold—and not a berry remained. For days the bookkeeper, Mrs. Dora Maxwell, pored over the figures, wondering how 100 boxes could have slipped through her fingers. Then it dawned on her and Dr. Archer that they had used the missing 100 pints in heaping up their boxes. But fat packages payoff well. They sold the entire crop wholesale at 35 cents a pint for several weeks and never less than 27 cents a pint tor the balance of the season.
AS A HOBBY, the growing of blueberries is ideal—especially for a man or woman cooped in office or factory all day. It can become a real family project at picking time, and the remainder of the work can be carried out week-ends and summer evenings. In winter you can enjoy blueberry pies made from fruit canned or frozen at harvest time. When you retire from your regular employment you will have a small, ready-made project for healthful exercise and possible cash return.
The bushes can be planted in nearly any type of soil. Just remember that they need plenty of sunlight and moisture. Tree roots can sap the moisture so necessary for a blueberry bush. If the soil is alkaline or sandy, dig a pit for each bush and fill the pit with leaf mold, peat, leaves, pine needles or any acid compost. Set the bush in the midst of it. This gives the plant acid soil and conserves moisture.
Bushes can be set out in spring or fall. The spring season is from April 1 to May 15 in New England. Dr. Archer prefers to plant from mid October till the ground freezes. Last year he transplanted 500 bushes in December, and they all prospered—in fact blossomed and bore fruit of excellent quality.
To insure proper pollination, two or more varieties should be planted in the field at the same time. Dr. Archer has fifteen varieties in his nursery at present but has been selling only three—Rubel, Concord and Jersey. He is developing the others into saleable bushes. Atlantic, Burlington, Pemberton, and Stanley will also be on sale next year. In the future he expects to have Berkeley, Covell, Dixi, Pioneer, Weymouth, and newer varieties, in order to extend the season from early July to September. Then too, he is striving for larger and better fruit. But all the above named varieties are reliable.
BUSHES ARE planted in rows eight or nine feet apart, and set at least four feet apart in the rows. The plants should not stand in water, but moisture should be available—a water table eighteen inches below the surface is ideal.
The field should be kept free of weeds and grass. Mulching heavily with hay, pine needles, or cranberry vines will effectively discourage them and conserve moisture. Mulch should be a foot deep to be effective. It makes picking easier, and rain cannot splash mud on the berries.
A commercial fertilizer—7-7-7—is applied in April a double handful spread in a circle around each adult bush. Mature bushes should be pruned in March, removing dead wood and cross-branches.
One day Dr. Archer was working in the blueberry field when a man who had purchased bushes from him the previous year drove up. He was greatly excited.
"My bushes are throwing out suckers from the ground!" he called out. "What shall I do, cut them off?"
Dr. Archer smiled. "Congratulations," he replied. "You're a fortunate man. You must have good blueberry land to have them develop so quickly. Do not cut them off; they will mean larger yields of berries." The customer went away satisfied.
SELLING LARGE, well flavored berries isn't very difficult once people try them. Dr. Archer has been able to sell all he has raised by the simple method of contacting wholesalers and restaurant owners in the vicinity.
One day last summer one of Dr. Archer's assistants took a crate of berries to a local inn. The proprietor grudgingly took a box. They heard no more from him that season. In July, 1951, the proprietor came and asked for wholesale privileges.
"I bought a box of berries from you last year," he said. "It made the best pie I ever ate. I used to think the wild ones were the only ones with flavor. Now I know better.
He bought big berries to decorate fruitcups and for pies. He ended by buying 400 pints for his deep freeze—pie fodder for the coming winter.
Blueberries aren't as perishable a product as strawberries or raspberries. They can be left on the bushes for days after turning blue. That is the secret of their sweetness and flavor—those extra days on the bush. You need conscientious pickers because sometimes a berry may look ripe on top but still be red underneath. Only fully ripened fruit should be picked.
Dr. Archer has advertising labels that are placed in his boxes before covering with Cellophane. These read, Archer Blueberry Nursery, and carry a short slogan: "Ye shall know them by their fruits. Archer bushes are top quality."
PROMOTING THE sale of bushes is done by several different methods. Advertisements are placed in the local papers. There are also big signs at the nursery plainly visible to passers by. The third method is via word of mouth from satisfied customers.
One day in November, 1951, a woman came from a long distance with one of the labels from a box of berries she had purchased that summer. Now she wanted to grow her own berries. So the sale of berries also helps the sale of bushes. Many repeat orders for bushes come in, some for the third and fourth time.
All transactions to date have been cash and carry—automobiles or trucks carting away the purchases. The Archer Nursery does not deliver or ship, local demand being equal to supply. Shipping will come when the nursery is fully grown.
Cuttings are never sold by Dr. Archer. All his plants must be three years of age before they are offered for sale. He will sell Jersey, Rubel, and Concord varieties this spring at the following prices; four-year-old bushes—$1.25, and three-year-old bushes for $1. In his third year of operation he sold $808 worth of bushes and $642 worth of berries. He intends eventually to sell more bushes than berries, but as he needs mature bushes for cuttings, he will always have berries to sell as a by-product.
THERE ARE a few booklets available on blueberry culture. Experimentation is being conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture and also by various state agriculture departments, including those in New Jersey and Massachusetts. The following list of bulletins is recommended.
Farmers Bulletin, No. 1951, issued by the U. S. Dept. of Agriculture in May, 1944 (slightly revised in November, 1946), is well illustrated and informative; 38 pages; apply Superintendent of Documents, U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington 25, D. C. Price 10 cents.
Blueberry Culture in Massachusetts, by Bailey, Franklin and Kelley; issued by University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts, in June, 1950; 24 pages.
Blueberries in the Garden, by Dr. John S. Bailey; leaflet No. 240, issued by University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts, March, 1949; 8 pages; suggestions on soil, cultivation, pruning, and pest control.
Propagation of High Bush Blueberry of Softwood Cuttings, by Doran and Bailey; Bulletin 410, November, 1943; 8 pages; University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts.
Blueberry Industry in New Jersey, 1944, by Allen and Weiss; Circular 356; 54 pages; a statistical study of little value to the beginner.
A BEGINNER is advised to buy bushes, but if he wants to experiment with propagation, this is how the Archer Nursery does it:
Dr. Archer has what appears to be a row of hotbeds such as those used to start seedlings in the spring. Cuttings require moisture, heat, and not too much sunshine. Beds for spring cuttings have heating wires in the bottoms of the beds. (July cuttings do not require artificial heat). Four to six inches of propagation mash is firmed in the beds. Cuttings are set in rows two inches apart, an inch or more apart in the rows.
The bed is covered with sash or wire-glass cloth to conserve both heat and moisture. A slatted cover fits over this to reduce the strong rays of the sun. In three months the cuttings should have begun to form roots.
Each grower will have to experiment with his own mash as peat varies in acid content. Peat as referred to in this article is not the same as sphagnum moss—they are two different things. Dr. Archer tried sphagnum moss and failed, but finds his peat is perfect.
You do not need peat except to root cuttings. If you do not have any of your own it can be obtained commercially by the bale. This adds to the cost, but as long as it is used only in the rooting process it need not be too prohibitive. You must have an acid peat such as of sphagnum moss origin. Although sphagnum moss is not peat, it does have the same acid quality. Dr. Archer finds it too porous for best results when shredded and mixed with sand.
Dr. Archer's peat has an acid content of Ph 3.4 which is more acid than ordinary peat. Since he had tons of it in his own meadow, he naturally wanted to use it. He developed his own formula. Dr. Archer uses a cement mixer to compound the mash.
In order to make satisfactory hardwood cuttings you must be able to distinguish between the leaf and flower buds, pruning the latter. A leaf bud is tiny, but a flower bud is rounded, If any flowering buds are left, they will sap the strength of the cutting, and it will die.
Hardwood cuttings are started in March and April. They should be rooted by July. Softwood cuttings—which have newly formed spurs with leaves—are made in July, and should be rooted by November.
Newly rooted cuttings must be protected the first winter. They may be kept in the propagation beds if mulched with pine needles and protected from snow and ice. They may even be set in the nursery if well rooted, protected in the same manner.
Dr. Archer started with some old bushes that hadn't been pruned for nine years. In order to bring these to productivity, he had sharply pruned and cut them back. This forced the plant to send up new growth from the ground. These plants are called "reconditioned."
DR. ARCHER predicts that someday cultivated blueberries will have a place in every home garden or lawn. They are beautiful at all times of the year and rewarding in their production of tasty berries. What would be lovelier around a house lot, than a hedge of blueberries? Utility and beauty combined.
Because Dr. Archer has green thumbs his hobby will continue to grow as it has in recent years. Now at seventy-one, this six-foot-plus, huskily built man can be seen working happily with his bushes every summer day. Active people are healthy people, and the outdoor life is giving him back the energy he may have lost when wrestling with educational problems.
When asked if he feared too much competition he laughed and replied:
"The demand for blueberries will grow. A man who is careful and raises fine quality fruit will never have to worry."
The expansions in progress at the Archer Nursery would seem to affirm this belief. His hobby has become his vocation.
The seasonal nature of this hobby gives Dr. Archer the winter months for literary work. When writing and pruning interests merge in March, he lays aside his pen and takes up his pruning shears. Today his literary and horticultural pursuits combine to give him a perfectly rounded life.
Note: To account for inflation, multiply prices by 8 to 10.