Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Preparing Your Blueberries and Strawberries for Winter

Good gardening friend Paul Parent of the Paul Parent Garden Club (http://www.paulparent.com/) sends out a great newsletter every week with pertinent gardening topics. I encourage you to go to his website to sign up for his newsletter. Paul can also be heard every Sunday morning from 6 AM to 10 AM at his website or at WBACH (104.7 FM) every Sunday morning from 6 AM to 9 AM. Paul recently sent this article out called "Preparing Your Blueberries and Raspberries for Winter" (I occasionally add a few comments in italics) and here it is:

"It's time to put the berry garden to bed for the season, a time to collect our thoughts of what we did to these plants and what they produced for us. Last week I drove by a "Pick your Own Strawberries" field and noticed that they were covering the berry beds with two inches of straw. I pulled in to the berry fields and talked to the workers, to find out that the fall is the best time to prepare the bed for the year.

Applying fresh straw in the fall helps to protect the berry plants from cold and snowless winter winds, as snow acts as a blanket of insulation to protect the plants. Straw, not HAY, is used to keep weeds out of the strawberry bed during the year; it helps warm the soil in the early spring to wake up the plants and get them growing. Straw also keeps the berries clean, as they are off the ground and slugs are less of a problem. When the workers finished, they were planning to apply limestone to the entire growing area to help keep the soil on the neutral side--remember neutral soils have less weeds growing in them. (I would only apply the limestone to the strawberries--not the blueberries. I know this is Paul's intent!)

(I think too we have a little time to get the straw down around the strawberries. Too early in the month will provide a great deal of time for mice and other rodents to use this straw as a winter home and your plants for food. So if you can wait on this project and other straw mulching projects until later in the month).

In the spring, the strawberry plants will poke through the straw and begin to grow on top of the fall layer of straw, which also helps with air movement around the plant to help prevent possible rotting of the berries and speed up ripening. In the spring, just add a bit of fertilizer and the plant is ready to produce. Use a fertilizer like Garden Tone by Espoma first thing in the spring and again in early summer, after picking the berries, to help the new developing plants for next year's crop. All you will have to do now is keep the birds out of the garden and enjoy the berries. (We sell some great garden netting at Skillin's that you can put down in early June to keep the birds away!)

In the blueberry garden, it is time to clean all the fallen leaves from around the plant and add them to the compost pile. When the garden is clean, add a two-inch thick layer of pine needles, straw, salt marsh hay, or pine bark mulch around the plants and in between the rows of plants. This layer of organic matter will insulate the roots of the plant during the winter, keep them cooler during the hot days of summer and control weeds in the garden.

I like to fertilize these plants spring and fall with Holly-Tone by Espoma fertilizer, and I add aluminum sulfate in the spring and fall to help keep the acidity level high in the soil. Aluminum sulfate will lower the pH of the soil, helping plants achieve their goal of high crop production. Also use it on blue hydrangea spring and fall to keep the flowers blue. (All natural Soil Acidifier Garden Sulfur by Espoma can be subbed for Aluminum Sulfate--I recommend it!)

Once the garden is ready for the winter, I always apply All Season Oil and Copper Sulfate Fungicide to the entire garden. This will help destroy any insect eggs or disease spores left on the plant by insects and disease from this year. I also reapply both of these natural products again in April, so I will have few if any problems with the garden. In the spring, when I notice that the buds are beginning to swell, I apply my fertilizer to help the flower and leaf buds develop properly.

Strawberries are most productive the second and third year in the garden. The first season in the garden is to help establish the plants. At the end of the third, dig up the berry bed and replant for next year. Blueberries are a real long-time crop that will last 25 years or more in your garden. With proper care, the plants will continue to grow, increasing production each and every year. So be sure to condition the soil when planting with compost and animal manure, mulch yearly, feed regularly (with Holly Tone by Espoma) and keep the soil on the acid side.

Most insect and disease problems can be controlled with the application of a general purpose fruit tree spray; follow the recommendations on the package to develop a spray program for your garden. The flavor of fresh-picked berries is far better than store-bought--and so is the nutritional level in the berries. Enjoy! "

Mike Skillin for Paul Parent
November 2, 2010

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