Blueberry Grove is a small blueberry orchard run by Warwick and Joan Press. The orchard was established in 1980 and although small by industry standards (having only 800 trees) it was planned this way so it could be run without employing staff, although as I get older I am finding it more difficult to adequately look after 800 trees.
To those of you not familiar with blueberries they are a native of North America and northern Europe more suited to a colder climate and grow quite small. Blueberries grown on the north coast of NSW are a subtropical variety, the rootstock of which is obtained from Georgia USA. The varieties we grow are Sharpblue, Brightblue, Tiffblue, Mysty, Powderblue, Brightwell, Backyard Blue, Georgia Gem, Centurion, Sunshine Blue, T102, and Gulf Coast.
Sharpblue has been very good in the past but sometimes the fruit tends to tear when you pluck them from the stalk. For household use this is not a problem but when sending to market in punnets the tear allows bacteria to form which gradually spreads from the affected blueberry to all the others in the punnet. Otherwise Sharpblue has a very nice taste and is one of the earliest fruits to come in. Brightblue and Tiffblue are very tall bushes – my netting is 3 metres high and they are growing a metre through the netting. They will grow 1 to 1½ m in a year which means constant pruning. They also have a tendency to sucker, which means that you start off with one stem and by year 10 you’ll have a dozen – they grow under the ground. Sharpblue does not sucker. Backyard Blues is more of a home garden variety and has the advantage of fruiting all year round. Brightwell is my favourite and is a vigourous grower, Georgia Gem have been very slow to grow but has lovely fruit. Gulf Coast has big fruit but the disadvantage of picking it commercially is that when you pluck it, it takes the stem with it so when you’re sorting it means that you have to individually pluck each stem off the fruit so as a commercial fruit, forget it. Also, being big fruit, it doesn’t taste as nice.
The varieties I have that I’ve found to be quite good are Brightwell, Mysty, Powderblue, Brightblue, Tiffblue and Sharpblue. All taste good but each of them has some disadvantage eg constant pruning, suckering, tearing but Brightwell has the least problems and I can recommend this variety. Another one that I’ve obtained from my nurseryman is Sunshine Blue. It’s more of an ornamental blueberry in that it is quick growing, has lovely flowers and is a heavy bearer – it fruits all the way up the stem and when it’s ripe you can strip it off with one hand. The tree I have here on display is 3 years old (it’s less than 1m high) and is loaded with fruit. A lot of them don’t require cross pollination eg Sunshine Blue. I’ve found that Powderblue has not required cross pollination because I’ve got them growing in between a row of Tiffblues and there are no flowers on the Tiffblues when there are flowers on the Powderblues. The experts do say you need cross pollination but I’ve found that a lot of my varieties do not flower together and yet I still get good fruit set...
Sheryl Do some have a higher sugar content than others?
Warwick You can taste the difference between the different varieties but I couldn’t recommend one over the other because of individual taste. I like Sharpblue myself – some say it is too sharp. Brightblue has a musky taste. I find that blueberries in general don’t have a high sugar content so that’s why they are low in calories.
Sheryl Who’s doing all the R & D?
Warwick NSW Dept. of Agriculture here at Alstonville in conjunction with Blueberry Farms of Australia at Corindi. The Dept has a team lead by Gordon Stovold who is a plant pathologist. Ridley Bell from Mountain Blue Orchards does a lot of propagation for Blueberry Farms of Aust. He has some varieties that I would love to get a hold of but because there is a PVR on them, I can’t get them. They have lovely big fruit, early, vigorous tree. He’s working on doing his own varieties at the moment because he realises he is limited to what he can produce for others.
Chris Which varieties are susceptible to fruit fly?
Warwick I have found some not as susceptible than others. Sharpblue, Mysty and Backyard Blue are susceptible.
Sheryl Have you checked whether you are attracting the male or female to your homemade mix in the bottle?
Warwick I don’t get the female fly in my homemade mix because it’s a male lure. It will lure the male only. It does reduce the population but doesn’t eliminate the female. The home solution is not as good as the Dak Pots.
Diana What variety would you recommend for the Brisbane area?
Warwick Brightwell and Mysty. Powderblue is a nice fruit, quick grower with lots of fruit but you need to keep it pruned –I have had no disease or pest problem with this one. Mysty has a bit of fruit fly and Sharpblues as well. Haven’t seen much fruitfly in Brightwell. Sunshine Blue is a new variety being sold at the moment – it’s more of a home garden plant, lovely flower, then masses of fruit. They’re $4.50 each.
Sheryl I like Gulf Coast. Georgia Gem is quite musky and is also quite nice. T102 is excellent.
Warwick Mysty tends to get a bit of dieback and I haven’t had a great deal of success with it at all. The T102 has very large fruit: good for wine. Centurion fruits in December. Backyard Blues fruits all year round. Brightwell is a bit gritty but tastes nice.
Blueberries grow to a height of between 2m and 3m depending on variety and have a long life of over 30 years especially if pruned back from time to time. Plant them in full sun but if you plant them north-south you’re going to get some shade throughout the day. If you have too much shade, the trees are late in maturing and slower growing. The fruit does not ripen all at once and the bush may at any one time have flowers, green fruit and mature fruit. This does have an advantage in that picking does not occur all at once but over an extended period. A normal harvesting season usually starts mid August and finishes about mid Feb. For the last couple of years the season has been starting later and later. When we first started picking, our harvest began at the end of July. Some of the bushes are getting old and less productive and by choosing the right varieties you can bring the season forward. This season has been so dry that harvesting did not start until mid October.
Our orchard produces about 3 tonnes of fruit per year in a good season. They can tolerate frost provided they are not planted out too small. The bushes are very hardy once they are about 1 year old and will grow in a variety of climates from Tasmania to Qld depending on the variety. They are a difficult bush to propagate. The usual method is from tip cuttings but they require bottom heat to encourage formation of the gall from which the new roots grow. It is possible to grow them from seeds they are slow and are not true to type. They need to have cold air on to them to get them going and mist them with water. The people growing them from seeds are experimenting with new varieties.
We have 2 plantation blocks. One block is about 18 years old with 3 old varieties totalling 400 plants. The trees are single row planted about 1.4m apart and about 2m between rows. It is proposed to replant this block with newer varieties. One row of Tiffblue has been replaced with Powder Blue planted 900mm apart. The other block is about 4 years old with 6 varieties totalling 400 trees. The trees are double row planted 1.4m on the triangle which uses half the space as the older block and half the number of irrigation lines.
Our blueberries have very little pest and disease problems which means very little spraying. The biggest pests are birds so netting is essential. We have Noisy Miners here and we are constantly sewing up the netting. They’ll walk across the netting and sit on the poles, peck a hole and dive-bomb in and they can’t get out and usually leave a little heavier than when they came in (lead can be so dangerous).The flying fox isn’t a problem up here because the berries don’t give off an aroma as peaches and mangoes do.
Fruit fly is a problem in some years. Some varieties are more susceptible than others but we bait. We hang a bait bottle under the trees to control the male fly and to give us an indication when the fly is present so that minimal spraying can be done. The bait bottle is usually a small plastic pill bottle with the lid on and suspended from a branch with wire through the lid. A flap is cut in the side of the bottle and hinged upward so that rain does not get in and allows the fly to get at the bait. The secret bait recipe is 2 ltr water, 1/2 cup sugar dissolved in hot water, 2 tbs spoons ammonia, 1 teaspoon vanilla essence. The vanilla essence and sugary water disguises the smell of the ammonia. The fly comes into the bottle, has a sip of the sugary water and the ammonia kills it. I find it a lot better than using Maldison and Protein Hydrolosis. Protein Hydrolosis smells like vegemite and is black like vegemite. Although it doesn’t eliminate the fly, it does indicate to me when the fly is active and then I can judiciously spray those varieties that are suspectible. I don’t spray the whole orchard. The fruit fly spray can be either Rogor which has a 1 day withholding period but which is deadly to bees or Lepidex which is an anti-chlorestoral spray that is systemic and is passed through the fruit to the fruit fly larvae. It is sometimes called Dipterex which has a 3 day withholding period. A major disease which has recently been introduced into the area is rust which affects some varieties of blueberries such as Sharpeblue, Backyard Blue and Mysty but to date not Brightblue, Tiffblue, Centurion, Powder Blue or Brightwell. We do have a small patch of phytophera in the orchard but it can be overcome by mounding which we have done.
I work for the Dept. of Agriculture as a graphic designer preparing posters etc. and recently completed a poster on the fungal diseases of blueberries. It sets out all the known diseases to date with the exception of rust which has just been introduced into Australia from South America. Unfortunately it’s a wind born spore. There’s fruit rots eg Anthracnose and Botrytis, stem and root diseases eg Stem Canker and Phytophthora. With Botrytis the fruit goes furry like peaches do. Anthracnose – has spots on fruit. There are minor leaf disease which don’t affect the fruit but does affect the vigour of the plant. The Stem and Root diseases causes die-back in the plants.
Leaf Rust causes the leaves to fall off and there is no vigour in your tree and if you have fruit on when the rust appears, it discolours the fruit. Rust appears when we get hot, humid weather and a fair bit of rain. We can control the rust by spraying with Mancozeb or you can use a systemic spray called Tilt which is very expensive or you can buy a spray that knocks all the leaves off without putting a poisonous spray on – it’s a leaf removal spray. The tree will recover but you can lose all your fruit if this happens. There are some varieties that are not susceptible to rust. Most of the tall growing varieties eg Tiffblue, Brightblue, Powderblue and Brightwell are not susceptible to date.
Blueberries do not like wet feet and some varieties eg Sharpeblue suffer from root rot. Mounding the soil helps prevent this. It is imperative that you do not lime your soil. They are one of the few plants that tolerate acid soils so thrive in the red soil but I am sure they would survive in anything up to 7 pH. My soil is around 4 pH. Young trees are shallow rooted so mulching is very beneficial and older trees are less stressed in dry weather. We mulch with either shredded paper which only lasts about one season or macadamia shells and husks which last several years. Between the rows we grow a legume, Pinto's Peanut, to help control soil erosion, weed control and mulch. It’s hard to establish – the seed is very small – I grow mine from cuttings and I can give you some if you’d like to take a cutting with you. It grows very vigorously so you have to keep it out of your tree rows and will eventually smother the bottom part of the tree. It will climb 30-45cm but you can get a dwarf variety now which doesn’t climb and is currently being trialled.
Sheryl Would we do it in a home situation?
Warwick Depends how many trees you’ve got – I probably wouldn’t bother. Once it’s established, it certainly spreads.
Sheryl Who’s doing the research on the non-climbing variety?
Warwick The Sub Tropical Fruit Research Station here. They also have another variety there too – Sweet Smother Grass. They are mostly trialling it between Macadamias. I’m presently trialling a new weedmat which is dense enough to keep weeds out but porous enough to allow water to penetrate. It's been in place for 3 years in the row of Powderblue that replaced the Tiffblue and I haven't had to weed yet. It’s been a great time saver as I am always weeding other unmatted rows. The only disadvantage with the weedmat is that it is fairly soft and susceptible to mechanical damage eg sharp objects. (bandicoots will tear it) The name of this product is Weed Gunnel and I purchased my supplies from Chris Minogue 13 Werona St Buddina 4575 email: email@example.com Most weed matting is so dense that water will just run off and you have to irrigate underneath it. With the weed gunnel I lay the irrigation on top for ease of maintenance. The soil needs to be kept damp. If you scrape away the mulch, the ground should be moist.
Blueberries need adequate water to help fill out the fruit and irrigation is necessary during dry weather. Our average rainfall here is around 1700mm but can get up to 2500mm. Hot weather, especially hot windy weather, tends to stress the trees and fruit will dry up like raisins.
Sheryl Your bushes are very dense – I wouldn’t have thought you would have much of a weed problem.
Warwick. I only have a weed problem with the older orchard because they are planted further apart and the Sharpblue is not a dense bush. They still need adequate water to help fill out the fruit and we irrigate during the dry season
On the other hand, too much wet weather causes ripe fruit to split and it will explode. We don’t have a problem with animals eating the fruit but I do have a problem with bandicoots and rats eating the pinto peanut. Wallabies would be a problem if the place wasn’t netted. I got my netting from Coastguard Netting at Ballina.
We use a high analysis fertiliser such as Crop King 55 (I think it’s now called Pivot 14) .We apply about 250-500gms per tree at bud swell and beginning of fruiting depending on the size of the tree– the fertiliser I put on is high in potassium.
Our fruit is all handpicked and sorted thus ensuring first quality fruit. On larger farms machine harvesting is practised but the fruit is generally not first quality and is mostly used in the processed and frozen food industry.
Sheryl The machine looks exactly like a grape harvester.
Warwick Yes it’s similar to one used for coffee as well. It has vibrating fingers that travel along each side of the bush and vibrate all the berries off the bush. It will take all the green berries as well. It’s very cost effective on large farms. I was in New Zealand 2 years ago and one farm had 300 acres and he had two machines and six employees to do the lot. The farm was south of Hamilton. His biggest problem was water logging as he sometimes had trouble getting the machinery into the orchard. They don’t net them. The birds damage the bushes but because they have 300 acres they don’t worry about it. He was in the export frozen food industry. He had another machine in his factory shed that sorted out the berries by colour – he had an infrared colour machine. A light detected whether each berry was blue or another colour and if it wasn’t blue, a little blast of air would push the berry off the table. It was so fast he only had one operator.
Sheryl Will these other berries ripen eventually?
Warwick Berries don’t ripen off the bush. Once a berry has ripened, they will hang on and stay there for up to two weeks. The berries are easily plucked from the bush, which has no prickles or thorns.
We dispose of our fruit in a number of ways. We send 150gm punnets to the Brisbane markets and local fruit shops. In the past we use to supply Coles and Bi-Lo, but because they take 6-8 weeks to pay us, we don’t do this any more. We have two freezers which will hold around 800 kgs so we have frozen fruit available all year round and this is sold mostly to cake shops and wholesalers of frozen food. From Nov to Feb we have pick-your-own as well as tourist buses. We also sell ice-cream, blueberry jam, blueberry wine and bushes.
Blueberries are a very convenient fruit. They will last for about 2 weeks in the fridge and can be frozen for over 12 months. They can be eaten with fruit salads and make a nice addition to vegetable salads. Use them on breakfast cereals, in pies, cakes, muffins, topping on ice-cream, pavlovas and cheesecakes, and a banana smoothie milkshake with blueberries is great. You end up with a purple drink as the colour is in the skin and not in the flesh. Blueberries dipped in chocolate are yummy.
Nutritionally they are low in calories, high in Vitamin C, provide dietary fibre and have small quantities of other vitamins and minerals. In recent studies blueberries have been found to be the most potent antioxidant available. They have 20 times the antioxidant power of Vitamin C and 50 times that of Vitamin E. The antioxidant is found in the blue pigments. Don’t know how true it is but recent studies from the US have shown that blueberries improve memory, balance and co-ordination. Wine made from blue fruit actually makes a red wine which contains a substance called oligomeric proanthocyanidin or OPC. Some interesting properties of OPC include: stabilises connective tissue and reduces the visible signs of aging such as wrinkles and as I’m only 110 I can attest to this fact!!! It also lowers cholesterol, reduces blood clotting, reduces risk of stroke and heart attack, it’s a natural anti-histamine, anti ulcer and anti-inflammatory and has similar action to bilberries re night blindness and many others. This is one of the reasons why the French have one of the lowest incidents of heart disease because they consume a lot of red wine. Years ago I sent off a kilogram of dried blueberries to a pharmaceutical company in Japan to investigate the qualities of its skin. This would have been the equivalent of 7 kgs on fresh berries.
Article compiled by Sheryl Backhouse