Photo by Patricia Walda

Disappearing blueberries

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We have blueberry bushes at our camp near Sudbury. I picked about a cup and a half of blueberries the first summer after we bought our place several years ago. Every year since, there have been fewer berries. Why? And is there anything I can do to boost the crop?
—Deborah Pero, Whitefish, Ont.

You might be tempted to blame thieves (bears, birds, the neighbours), but the two most likely culprits are spring frost—which kills blooms early, so they never turn into berries—and the cruel, cruel ravages of time.

“As the plants get older, they’re less productive,” says Pam Fisher, a berry crop specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Fruit buds are smaller, more vulnerable to damage, and tougher to harvest—which is why five years ago you were making pies, and now you can barely garnish a piece of cheesecake. Life is not fair.

But hang on: You can turn back the clock on your plants. “You could renovate them,” says Kevin Schooley, the executive director of the Ontario Berry Growers Association. This means removing the parts of the plant above the ground, so the roots will generate brand-new growth.

Wild blueberry growers revive their stands by burning or mowing every two or three years; you could prune yours with a lawn mower or hedge clippers. Do this in early spring, before you see buds. Go slowly and cut close to the ground, but make sure you don’t damage the roots. Since you won’t see a berry crop the same year you prune, Schooley recommends only cutting a third of the patch at a time.