By Dan Habermehl
Why blueberries? The simplest answer is because they taste good. But their true value lies in the relationship that develops over time. A blueberry patch becomes like a good friend with whom quality time is spent, memories forged, dreams and sorrows shared.
Like any honest relationship, over time it will provide opportunities to learn about life. Blueberries are like that; blueberry bushes teach stewardship, generosity and forgiveness.
Lisa and I planted our oldest rows of blueberries 15 years ago. We chose two successful cross-pollinating high bush varieties for our farm in the hills of the Allegany Plateau. Each year, we would purchase from Jack Prem as many small plants as $100 would buy. Jack had a friendship with a grower and so he got a discount on them and passed it along to me.
It took five years before we harvested any fruit. By then we had invested half a grand, and I remember joking that first year, when Lisa found five ripe berries, that she had better enjoy them because the berries cost $100 each.
There is work that goes into growing the bushes. After they have been planted, one must also mulch around them. The weeds need to be kept at bay, and pruning may be needed from time to time. Pruning is a fine late winter activity that brings me onto the farm on a day I might have stayed home.
Sometimes while engaged in the work of pruning, the sound of cracking ice from the pond below can be heard as the sun begins to thaw the edge. Also heard is the call of red-winged blackbirds.
Today, as I picked the first of this season’s bounty, I reflected on the many moments shared at the feet of these bushes. On my way to the farm, I stopped to see a friend, who gave me a net designed to keep the birds away. When I arrived at the field, I surveyed what neglect can do when life’s priorities replace your passions.
The branches were bent under the weight of unripe fruit. Goldenrod and thorny raspberry plants have taken over. Honeysuckle has found a foothold alongside my crop. Black locust trees have grown to 20 feet from the stubble that was left when last I tended this plot of land.
I decided not to cover the plants when I calculated that destruction would be greater by the bear I just saw leaving the field, than if I tried to discourage him with a net. What is a plastic net to a hungry bear with blueberries on his mind?
Sure some branches will break as he feeds, but if I covered the bushes he would break them all. And would he become entangled? Would he end up eating the netting? Because I did not have answers, I decided to leave things be.
I began to plan my reclamation of our berry patch, mindful of its many beneficiaries. Family, friends, neighbors, both welcome and not. I said earlier that a relationship with blueberries teaches worthwhile values, and in my tenure I have learned to be generous and forgiving.
Blueberries ripen over time, and can’t be harvested all in one visit. One must return again and again. In the gap between days of harvest, others will visit and take their share. If it is not the unwelcome neighbor who sneaks in on weekdays when no one is around, it will be the blue jay, the fox, the ant and the bear.
The jays will taste the berries searching out the sweetest fruit, the ants will follow and eat all but the skin of the tasted fruit. The fox will stand on hind legs to eat. And if you wait too long between visits, a summer storm will surely come along and shake all of that neglected goodness to the ground.
I have learned that if I hope to be a steward of blueberries, and enjoy their sweet tart flavor, I must learn to be generous and forgiving, willing to share my bounty with friends, neighbors and wildlife.