Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The journey toward blueberries

This is a loooong post, so grab a cup of tea and follow our journey toward blueberries.

Last year, you might recall I went on a hunt for blueberry bushes. They were one of the first things I wanted to get established here in our new home, but there was a regional shortage at the time and I was worried I wouldn't be able to find enough.

Fortunately, from a variety of sources, I was able to obtain the bushes I wanted: 15 Chandlers, six Toros, three Patriots, and five Spartans (originally six, but one died), for a total of 29 bushes.

For the longest time, these bushes remained in pots on the porch (where they were protected from deer) while we figured out where to plant them and how best to protect them.

We had also purchased four peach trees, and were faced with a similar question: Where to plant them and how to protect them.

A major consideration around here is deer pressure. We have deer everywhere. When we finally get our raised-bed garden installed, we plan to have 10-foot-high fencing around it, but last year we had nothing established by way of infrastructure to protect the bushes, and of course we couldn't delay too long in getting the berries into the ground.

So after much deliberation, we decided on an unorthodox solution. (Hmm. It seems most of our solutions are unorthodox.)

We have a strip of lawn in front of the house, parallel to the driveway. We're limited in what we can do on this spot, because a portion is part of the drain field for our septic system. Fortunately we are able to tell (from the unevenness of the ground) where the drain field ends, and we decided to put the blueberries and peaches there.

Don laid everything out in a schematic.

We assembled the early tools we needed: stakes, tape measures, marking string, and spray paint.

We staked out where we were going to drill holes with the tractor auger, both for planting blueberries and peach trees, but also for constructing an enclosure to protect everything from the deer.

Measuring and marking.

Don made a spacer board to mark where to auger holes for blueberries, to keep things fairly even.

The spray paint indicates where the holes will get augered.

Once all the preliminary layout was done, it was time to begin the enclosure to protect against deer. We had already salvaged some pressure-treated poles.

These poles were a lucky (and free) find. Hard to beat that price. We decided they would become the uprights to hold fencing in place for the blueberries and peach trees.

We laid out the space where we wanted to place the poles, and augered holes using the tractor auger.

Then he augered the holes to plant the blueberries.

But building the protective enclosure was more important than planting at this point, so Don focused on getting the poles into the ground.

First he made a quick jig to hold the poles in place.

He measured and marked two inches from the ends of each pole.

Then, using a paddle bit, he drilled holes.

Then we set the poles upright in the ground, with the drilled holes at top.

We used salvaged well pipes to link the poles together. Well pipes are one of the homesteader's best friends. They're often free, they're 21 feet long, and they can be threaded together. We threaded some of the pipes through the holes in the poles. (That's our internet satellite dish on the right.)

We made sure the poles were level.

Tamping the poles in place.

We could thread the well pipes together to make the lengths we wanted. Plumber's wrenches helped.

(So did a little grease.)

The result was a series of poles linked by metal rods.

(If all this seems very convoluted and mysterious, bear with us. There's a method to our madness.)

We only put in about half the poles and pipe we wanted to create the enclosure, just enough to plant the blueberries. But to get ready to plant the peaches, we brought in a neighbor who has a small Bobcat trackhoe to dig us some holes.

Here's one of the holes.

To the pile of excavated dirt, we added sand to break up the heavy clay.

Don churned together the dirt and sand using the rototiller attachment on the tractor.

Once it was all mixed together, he backfilled the hole with the dirt/sand mixture. These will be our peach-tree planting spots. We then continued constructing the line of upright poles and pipes to the end of this line, to enclose the spots we'll plant the trees.

To make the enclosure sturdy, however, we needed to brace the upright poles. To do this, Don cut pieces of well pipe at an angle to use as braces. He started with a jig setup.

This is the end of the well pipe he'll be cutting with a metal-cutting wheel.

Here's his metal-cutting wheel.

It's a pity the photo barely captures the cascade of sparks that went flying every time he made a cut. It was quite dramatic.

Once he had all the pipe cut to length, he drilled a hole in the long end of the angle, about an inch from the tip.

(Close-up of the drilled hole, complete with metal shavings.)

Each upright wooden pole got two metal braces screwed into it.

This is the (still incomplete) result. The angled braces serve two purposes: they brace the pole, but they also act as a support for the siding.

For the siding, we used cattle panels (some people call these hog panels).

These were leaned up against the angled pipes.

Finally it was time to actually plant the blueberries. We carefully prepped the holes with a generous amount of peat moss, which gives acid-loving blueberries a boost.

I brought all the blueberries down from the deck...

...and organized them according to variety.

Don even made a small chart showing what was planted where.

In the ground.

Then I laid out some weed cloth and started fitting it around the blueberry plants.

Crucially, however, I did not anchor the weed cloth with gravel. Big mistake! We didn't have any gravel at the time, and we naïvely assumed the weed cloth would be sufficient to, well, block the weeds. (It wasn't.)

To complete the enclosure, we used sturdy deer netting.

This we cut to length and draped over the pipe at the apex of the structure.

This is what the enclosure looks like. The cattle panels can drop down for access to the berries, and the angled cattle panels combined with the netting keep the deer from even trying to get in. (Deer don't like to mess with angles.) The height at the apex is high enough that we can walk inside without banging our heads, though admittedly this is because we are a family of hobbits.

But this is where things stalled. Big-time. The temperatures were getting roastingly hot by this point – last summer wasn't much more than a blur of heat that seemed to last for months – and early mornings were being used for other projects. As a result, only 12 of the blueberry plants got any weed cloth at all, and what was there wasn't anchored with gravel and therefore didn't do much good.

Bottom line, the blueberries got ignored. Make no mistake, I watered them, but did nothing more for a full year.

This last spring, we were dealing with Don's health situation. Once he was recuperated, he was able to move some gravel for me, and I became determined to mend the mess I'd made with the neglected blueberries last year. The bushes were overwhelmed with weeds and grasses to the point of embarrassment. I mean, look at this!

It's hard to even spot the poor overwhelmed berry bushes.

So I got busy doing what I should have done last year, cursing myself for leaving it so long and thus multiplying the amount of work required. (Ben Franklin said it well: A stitch in time saves nine.)

I started at the end of the line where I had ineffectually laid down that length of weed cloth last summer. I pulled off the cloth and started hand-pulling the grasses and weeds down to bare dirt. The weed cloth did do one thing – it kept the ground softer and made it easier to pull everything out. Still, it was laborious work.

Don had purchased a section of the biggest PVC pipe he could find, then sawed it into chunks to use as collars.

As I cleared the ground around each bush, I tucked weed cloth around the plant base, then fitted the collar and snugged it down.

Relatively speaking, this first section was easy. Soon I had the area paved with weed cloth and graveled.

Then I had to tackle the much longer section that had never had weed cloth over it. The bushes were more stunted here, simply from having sunlight blocked by the tall grasses.

This was much more time-consuming. Don started by weed-whacking what he could, but he had to be very slow and careful not to accidentally hit a bush. (He never did.) That took care of the tallest grasses. After that, I armed myself with knee pads and an electric trimmer and got to work.

I shaved – literally shaved – the grasses down to the ground using the electric trimmer. The blueberry bushes themselves didn't have many weeds growing in the holes where we originally planted them, which was good news. Instead, they were simply overwhelmed by tall grasses. Once these were trimmed down, we could see that not only did all the bushes survive, but they didn't look half-bad (considering). Most had berries.

For each bush, I fit a double layer of weed cloth around it, followed by a collar. Then I laid a double-layer of weed cloth throughout the rest of the section...

... and graveled it.

It took several days of working just in the mornings (when it's cool) to get all the berries done, but the result is splendid.

Until we get a drip system in place, all I need to do to water is drop the cattle panel to the ground, and I can water directly into the collar around each plant. When I'm done, I simply pick up the panel and lean it back against the poles.

It's worth noting that the enclosure itself – the poles braced by well pipes, with deer netting draped over and cattle panels at the bottom – has worked perfectly. The local deer (and elk) population has never even tried to breach these defenses.

As for the bushes themselves, they're producing beautifully. Considering their rocky start, they've been very forgiving.

The young peach trees are next. (By the way, they don't have deer netting over them, of course. Just around them.) They're doing better, simply because they weren't choked by grasses. But they look sloppy, and I don't like sloppy gardens.

So that's our long and convoluted journey toward blueberries. If I had done things correctly from the start, they would have been a lot less work. But at least they're done now.


  1. You did a really good job on the selection of the bushes, with more Chandlers than anything else, and a good mix of others for pollination.

    We began our blueberry patch with a raised bed filled with a dump truck of composted mushroom soil that grew other crops for a few years so that there was absolutely no grass underneath. Gradually we added layers of peat moss, wood shavings and shredded leaves on top of the initial compost, until our soil was nice and deep, and acidified it with sulfur annually. Since blueberry roots are shallow, we keep our soil topped off with more leaves and compost to break down all summer long, with a large rubber or coir mat down the middle of our rectangular patch to suppress weeds and facilitate walking.

    Your 10' pressure treated posts were a great find, and I might have laid them out as upright corner posts and a few down the middle, and then chicken-wired the sides while heavy-netting the top. This would also help to keep birds away from your crop.

    It's wonderful that your husband has a good selection of tools and knows how to use them - this will come in very handy down the road!

    1. That is sort of my question. Do you have problems with birds being able to get in through the cattle panels and then getting trapped. The birds wiped out our blackberry crop this year so I'm already trying to come up with a plan.

    2. We haven't had a problem with birds eating (too many) of our blueberries, but strawberries are a different matter. Already the magpies have wiped out our modest strawberry crop, which may not be a bad thing this year since the plants are just getting established. However we're going to have to net next year.

      I used bird netting extensively in our old place, and grew disillusioned after finding too many dead birds which got tangled in the netting. We're going to try a new product, which allegedly doesn't tangle birds. Click on this link:


      We haven't purchased it yet and can't vouch for it, but there seem to be a number of bird-safe nettings on the market.

      - Patrice

    3. I tried this after reading about it some where on the internet. Paint rocks a bright red - I used spray paint but it would be a fun craft project with kids. Then, after your strawberries have formed but before they turn red, put the painted rocks throughout your strawberry patch. The birds will peck at the rocks. By the time the berries are red and ripe, the birds will have given up and won't bother the actual berries. I was really skeptical but did it and had great results. YMMV.
      SJ in Vancouver BC Canada

  2. That blueberry patch is now a thing of beauty! What an ingenious solution to protecting them as well, unconventional and fabulous!


  3. I've had the deer in Colorado chew completely through deer netting to get at our fruit trees. Wish I'd thought of the cattle panels on an angle! Looks like that might work the best. Please keep us posted. I want to plant a blueberry garden next year, and already the deer are here munching all my blackberries. I think they heard me talking about it. Sigh.

    Mama J

  4. This was ingenious! I wish I had blueberry bushes!

  5. I have a neighbor that had 4 tomato bushes right out by his garage, no panels, no nets, nothing. Except he had a rain bird sprinkler set up with a motion sensor. Every time a critter came within the right distance it would go on. He claimed it was like magic.

    WOW! You must really love your blue berries.

    1. We did the same. Kept the deer away.

  6. We've had our blueberries in the ground five years and hadn't really had trouble with the birds until this year. Suddenly it's as though they've discovered them. We strung fishing line from pole to pole and then hung old CD's from fishing line. It did seem to help keep the birds away. I was thinking of getting a fake owl too . . .

  7. The problem with Blueberries is you spend so much trying to protect them, it becomes economically ridiculous. That said, I had some old treated posts and built a 15 x 8 framework around four bushes with a walk door to get in. Then we draped bird netting over all of it and stapled it into place. This works but the birds still manage to get in through the seams. We use nets to catch them. If money were no object, I'd put hardware cloth over the whole thing. One other thing....in our heavy clay soil, a side dressing of elemental sulphur twice a year does wonders for growth and productivity.

  8. Patrice, You do not have to build a 10' high fence to keep out the deer. Build a standard 6' high fence, BUT have the fence posts be 10' high and then run a single strand of bright wire about 2' above the top of the fence, and then another single strand of bright wire just below the top of the posts. The giant antlered rats will see the wires and NOT try to jump over. Doing this will save you a TON of money on the fence. You can also use strands of bright, reflective mylar tape. This really psyches out the giant antlered rats. As extra insurance, put some "pointy" artwork a few feet back on the inside of the fence about where the rats will "land" IF they jump.
    The giant antlered rats will see that their landing place will be painful and have even less incentive to jump the fence.

    You will really need something to protect your blueberry plants from hungry Robins and other Thrushs. They will eat EVERYTHING on the plant. But, let them do this for the first 2 years. On the 3rd year, the plant will be ready to burst forth with abundance. That's when you need the tight mesh bird netting.


    1. For many years, I have used an electric fence to keep the deer out. Three strands, one about three inches off the ground for little critters, the next about 18", and the top one about three feet off the ground. The fawns touch this once when they are really little and they never get close the rest of their lives. We literally never have any problems with deer in the garden but they eat every flower planted around the house!!!!

    2. Yes, that does work. our neighbor has such a fence for his horses. however, have you checked the price of such a fence lately?


    3. $50 or less for charger, $2 per plastic post, $30 for aluminum wire. I take it down in the fall to plow, put it back up in spring after I plow and disc. I use metal posts at the corner so I can get it tight and so I can put in walk gates so that would add a little more expense. Charger is in the barn loft, ground rod (another expense $10) is just outside the barn and I run an overhead wire to a pvc pipe in the garden perimeter to keep it high. PVC pipe just sets over a metal rod driven into the ground. Wire comes through a hole 3' above ground to attach to fence.