The Dirt: Growing happy blueberries

Sometimes you have to pinch ‘em to save ‘em.

When my new blueberry saplings arrived from the N.C. Cooperative Extension, the 20 plants seemed barely alive—just a bunch of switches, swaddled in compost and sawdust in an old Ingles milk-jug box.

Baby blue: This year’s buds swell in an early season blueberry branch. Photos By Margaret Williams

It’s tough enough waiting half the summer for fresh corn, but it’ll take me two to three years to get enough blueberries for a pie or jam. No wonder farmers are such a patient lot.

Happily, I have a backup source for blueberries and advice: Imladris Farm.

About a year ago, I spied a bearded, hippie-looking young man hawking his blueberry, blackberry and raspberry jams outside the Grove Arcade in Asheville. “Can you make money at that?” I asked, sounding a bit like my father, who always used to ask if I could make money as an English-lit major or a medal-winning karate chick.

The man paused. “Yes,” he said, drawing out the word in measured fashion. His name was Walter Harrill, and I visited him this spring at Imladris Farm, on a mountaintop near Cane Creek.

Back in the ‘60s, long before blueberries’ health-enhancing qualities were recognized, Harrill’s grandfather planted about 700 blueberry bushes. “That’s how I got into farming,” said Harrill. “I used to help him out. I kept farming blueberries up here because the soil and conditions are perfect.” The soil is very acidic—bad for many farm crops but great for rhododendrons, azaleas and blueberries. Harrill pointed to a row of abandoned raspberry canes. He tried growing those up here, he said, but “they hated it.”

Harrill talks about his plants as if they were living entities, and they are. The blueberry grove stretches down the mountainside almost as far as you can see. Farther down, pines, oaks and chinquapins have taken over much of it. “As my grandfather got up in years, it was too much for him. I started helping, but all I could do at first was maintain. The woods crept up on us,” he said. “This is what I inherited,” he continued, touching a blueberry bush whose older limbs were thick with lichen. Blueberries need to be pruned regularly, and his grandfather didn’t do that, Harrill explained.

Berry glad to meet you: Imladris farm owner Walter Harrill and his son, Andy.

Since taking over the farm almost 10 years ago, Harrill has gradually worked to reclaim grove from forest and keep the bushes pruned. Older canes look strong, but the younger ones produce the most, so Harrill prunes to keep about one-third of a bush’s canes less than a year old, one-third of them 2 years old, and one third of them older. After five years, the bushes don’t yield much. Large commercial farms dig up and dispose of their bushes after 15 years, he said.

“Some of these are almost 50 years old,” Harrill emphasized. But with coaxing, they produce enough blueberries to support his successful jam business. For my own new blueberry bushes, I must pinch off the blooms and any berries—without fail—for the first two years, he said: Sounds cruel, but it helps the transplants develop roots. “Pruning is invigorating [for the plants],” he explained.

“Look, Dad!” yelled Harrill’s 6-year-old son, Andy, running over to a blueberry bush.

Harrill laughed: It was one he’d taken for dead, plowed up and tossed aside. Now it’s growing like crazy. So is the jam business—and so is Harrill’s life. Before farming, he and his wife worked in the medical field, making good money. “We were always one step away from happiness: If we just had another $2,000 or $3,000 a year, we’d be happy, we thought.”

But they wanted something different. So when they got the chance to move back home and start farming, they came. When he was about Andy’s age, Harrill recalled, a big family social event was weeding the gardens. “I hated it!” But now he sees the bigger picture. Organic gardening isn’t just about using organic fertilizers and avoiding insecticides. It’s about sustainable practices, about creating and maintaining an ecosystem.

Back on his home plot nearby, Harrill raises goats to clear overgrown farmland, chickens to nibble the pests that bother the goats, and rabbits for their manure and for eating. Rabbits, he explains, produce manure that’s less ammonia-laden, so you don’t have to compost it for months or even years before using it in the garden. “My joke is, you shake the rabbit over the raspberry bush to fertilize it,” he said, chuckling.

Another key is figuring out “what the land wants to grow.” His four-and-a-half-acre farm lacks the acidic soil that makes blueberries happy, so instead of using sulfur to make it that way, he grows raspberries, blackberries and apples here. “The sustainable approach [means] growing a good, healthy blueberry bush [or whatever] and being pleasantly surprised at how much it produces,” says Harrill. Similarly, he takes advantage of the cool, moist rhododendron grove surrounding a natural spring on his property to raise some very happy shiitake mushrooms.

Throughout our farm tour, son Andy kept up a refrain of “What’s this, Dad?” and “Look at this, Dad!” He was patiently answered. Andy even explained a few things to me, in that way kids have of abruptly sounding adult and intelligent. Happy, healthy kids—that’s part of the “system,” too.

“My definition of success is paying your bills, having less stress, living responsibly,” says Harrill. “So my answer to your question [a year ago] is, ‘Heck, yeah!’ You can make a living at farming.”

Back home, musing on Harrill’s comments about sustainability, commercialism and living very happily at what most Americans would call the poverty level, I planted my blueberries. I mulched them with sawdust from a local mill. I pulled the weeds by hand. I pinched the early blooms, wincing as I’m prone to do, because they’re beautiful.

And now I wait.

[Freelance writer and former city girl Margaret Williams now delights in simple country pleasures, such as discovering a local source of free, composted horse manure.]

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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