Annie Calovich

June 26, 2010

Red, white and blueberries

I'd been reading a story about more jobs being lost to technology when I heard extension agent Rebecca McMahon say that no machine has been invented that can pick blueberries. The popular fruit requires the human touch.

I'd been reading a story about more jobs being lost to technology when I heard extension agent Rebecca McMahon say that no machine has been invented that can pick blueberries. The popular fruit requires the human touch.

The blueberry is not only beautiful, delicious and healthy, I thought, but people-friendly too. What a thoughtful fruit.

Rebecca had more to say about growing blueberries in Wichita. She talked about the need to amend the soil with sulfur because our soil is alkaline, and blueberries need acidic. The soil prep should be started a year before you plant. Then the blueberries can't be picked the first year, and only in the second if they're robust enough. It's basically in the third year they come into their own.

They have no root hairs to take in water, so they have to be watered a lot, and, as has been alluded to, they have to be picked individually, because they don't ripen in clusters.

"Usually when people come in, they're telling sad stories about their blueberry plants," Rebecca told me.

OK, OK, I give. They're human-friendly if they're providing you with a job, but not so much if you're a hobby gardener in Wichita.

Luckily for us, the Wichita area has a new blueberry source — Chautauqua Farms, about 1 1/2 hours southeast of Wichita, near Sedan. You can take a road trip and pick your own, or buy them at the Old Town or Andover farmer's markets.

"We have a wide range of customers, and the more word gets out, the more people are coming down from the Wichita area to pick," says Lance Chastain of Andover, who owns the farm.

"I don't need to see more than the smile on their face to know they're happy."

When Lance bought the farm he decided he wanted to grow what he loved to eat (wise man). Blueberries are one of those things, so he had the farm's soil tested for them. And fortunately, one might even say miraculously, the soil was amenable to blueberries.

Lance and his wife, Elizabeth, grow two acres of blueberries — and blackberries and asparagus — with no pesticides, another perk. Rebecca says the price is a little higher than we're used to, but then there is nothing else quite like them around here. The blueberries should be ripe through the second week of July — just in time to include them in a red, white and blue dish for the Fourth.

While Rebecca says you have to be a pretty determined gardener to try to grow blueberries, she did see a spike in the number of people getting their soil tested for blueberry growing this spring. Whether they persevered after they received Rebecca's lengthy instructions, we don't know. But there are at least a few hobby gardeners growing blueberries successfully in the area.

"We're lucky enough we had relatively decent soil for Sedgwick County," says master gardener Cynthia Abbott, whose husband, Greg, grows blueberries on their land in Clearwater. After living in Mobile, Ala., where the soil is acidic and the blueberry growing easy, Greg wanted to try them here. So far so good.

Of six original plants — two for each of the early, middle and late seasons — four "are doing great," Cynthia says. "They have come into their own and are doing phenomenally well. We're almost done with the early season and we've been harvesting probably two cups, three cups a day for the last two weeks. The midseason are just getting ready to come on and they're just loaded, to the point we should have reduced the load. They're not going to produce next year."

Among the special touches the blueberries get: coffee grounds, plenty of water, acidifying fertilizer when the leaves show yellowing — a sign of iron chlorosis from soil that's not acidic enough.

Greg and Zach Kowalski of Wichita are growing plants they bought from Waters Blueberry Farm in Smithville, Mo. Zach also is trying some he bought on closeout at Lowe's.

Blueberry plants not only can produce fruit but are very ornamental and even get good red fall color, Zach says. For all that, if you want to try a couple, containers may be the cheaper and easier way to go, because the conditions in a pot are easier to control than in the ground, Rebecca says.

But for those who have taken the plunge into the ground and had success, the reward is sweet indeed.

"Ideally I keep thinking we're going to get enough to freeze," Cynthia Abbott says. "I've made blueberry crisp. We just keep a bowl on the counter and eat them as snack food. Generally there really isn't much left."

Related content