Berry-scope, Part 1

IMG_20140701_074543392Berries are easier to grow than vegetables, because they have fewer insect pests and you don’t have to plant them every year. And what a joy when abundant berries ripen and you can freeze them for winter eating or invite your friends over for a pickathon.

Blueberries are a major crop for us, and they’re just starting to turn blue now. After many years of fumbling around with netting to protect them from birds, Betsy and our son Alex  built a 10-foot-high roofed cage for them out of wood and chicken wire, as shown below. They need no spraying; we just spread pine needles at their base once a year, because blueberries, unlike most plants, like an acid soil.

IMG_20140701_092846503_HDRRobert Frost, who once lived here in Amherst, has a wonderful poem called “Blueberries.” It’s a dialogue between two country folk, and one says, “It must be on charcoal they fatten their fruit. I taste in them sometimes the flavor of soot.”

Last year was our best year ever for blueberries, perhaps because we got abundant spring rain. We froze many pint containers and are still eating the berries. Betsy puts a quarter cup of frozen berries on her oatmeal every morning.  The warm oatmeal thaws them and they don’t lose their color or get mushy.

I have a simple recipe for blueberry jam, in which I puree 4 cups of berries in a blender with a quarter cup honey. I bring it to a boil in a saucepan, and stir for one minute while it’s boiling. Meanwhile, I sprinkle 2 envelopes (2 tablespoons) of unflavored gelatin in a quarter cup of orange juice and let it  stand a minute. I add it to the blueberry mixture and heat, stirring, for about 3 minutes. I let it stand for 5 minutes before pouring it into jars, and cool before refrigerating.

Blueberries are high on most lists of foods that promote good health and long life. They contain many antioxidants, which neutralize “free radicals” that are linked to cancer and heart disease. They have only 80 calories per cup and are loaded with Vitamins C and K, plus manganese and fiber. Some believe they help ward off urinary tract infections (as cranberries do) and even improve memory.

Listen up, men! Blueberries are thought to promote prostate health.

There has to be a downside in something so wonderful, and there is. It’s called the spotted wing drosophila, a fruitfly that lays its eggs on blueberries and turns them to mush. It started invading the Northeast a year or so ago, and spraying is ineffective because it develops a tolerance quickly, and who wants to eat blueberries sprayed with chemicals?

Our strategy is to pick the blueberries shortly after they turn blue when we first detect fruitfly damage. This makes them a little less sweet, but seems to be the best course of action.

Tomorrow: raspberries, gooseberries and strawberries.


6 thoughts on “Berry-scope, Part 1

  1. Blueberries don’t do best in acidic soils, but they are more tolerant to acidic soils than many plants. If you want to see blueberries really flourish, then try planting them in an area that has burned, so the soil is quite alkaline.

  2. Nice blog, Nick. Folksy and informative. I’m grateful we don’t have the pest problems you describe on our place in Hadley, but your search for solutions makes for entertaining reading indeed. We were watching the sunset from our hot tub last week when four young rabbits materialized from the row of spruce between us and our fields. They chased each other for 30 minutes before retiring about the same time we did, leaving the unmowed field grasses to the magic of the fireflies. So far, we’ve not noticed any bunny nibbling in our raised beds….I don’t know if wood chucks are territorial like squirrels. But with squirrels it is more humane to kill them than to trap and relocate. Squirrels are supremely territorial, and the trap-and-move solution typically leads to death by starvation for those that cannot make their way back home. It’s a cruel world out there, and sometimes what seems like the most heartless remedy to an invasion is just the opposite.

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