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by Ryan Neal - November 12, 2018
Here is a guest post from Benton County Agent and Blueberry Grower Ryan Neal. Ryan
conducted a demonstration of summer hedging Northern and Southern Highbush blueberries from 2017-2018. His farm
is located in Northwest Arkansas.
Summer “Hedging” Blueberries by Ryan Neal
Summer pruning of blueberries is a common practice in North Carolina’s blueberry growing
region especially with early season varieties like Duke. This encourages the growth
of new wood which generally has larger berries and delayed bloom. This delayed bloom
can help reduce the risk of freeze injury. Arkansas and North Carolina share similar
growing conditions but it is questionable whether or not Northwest Arkansas has a
long enough growing season for adequate new shoot growth and bud set.
Directly after harvest in 2017 Duke, Chandler, Legacy, Blueray, Bluecrop, and O’Neal
varieties were “hedged” at ~3’ with gas powered hedge trimmers after harvest. These
plants are about 6 years old. Harvest was done on Duke and O’Neal by Mid-June. The
other varieties could not be hedged until early July when picking was complete.
In February 2018 pruning of these “hedged” plants was drastically reduced and you
can see below that there is predominately red wood, which is a sign of young healthy
new shoots compared to older grey wood.
May 15th the hedged plants where in full bloom while the non-summer pruned Duke had
completely finished. This was a bloom delay of about 2 weeks.
More significant is the bloom delay on Southern Highbush varieties such as Legacy
and Oneal. The picture below was taken on April 9th, the morning before was 24 degrees
for over 3 hours.
Most of the crop from “non-hedged” Oneal and Legacy was lost in 2018 ( See picture
below of “burnt” flowers from cold temps). The hedged crop from Legacy and Oneal did
not have freeze damage on the blooms because of delayed flowering. The unhedged plants
produced ~25% of its crop and the hedged plants produced ~75% crop. The reason the
hedged plants only produced ~75% was the reduced number of buds due to the large amount
of wood taken off in the summer.
Below is the “non-hedged” Duke on May 30, 2018 at peak harvest
Below is the “hedged” Duke with only green berries on the same date.
Below is June 10th and the hedged Duke is now in peak harvest.
Yield data was not collected but appeared reduced on the hedged Duke plants compared
to the non-hedged Duke. It is worth noting that berries on the hedged plants where
easier and quicker to pick due to the concentrated location and ripening of the berries
as well as larger berry size. This may have led to a more similar pack out yield
between the two treatments although delayed by two weeks.
Legacy and Oneal had very little harvest from the non-hedged plants due to frost damage.
The hedged plants appeared to have a normal harvest.
Below, the row in the right of the picture was hedged the summer of 2017 and the row
on the left was hedged summer 2018. In the background you can see plants that have
not ever been summer pruned. This picture was taken October 2018 and those plants that have been summer pruned
have a lot of new growth and much healthier looking leaves than those plants never
before being summer pruned. It will be interesting to see what the harvest looks
like on those plants hedged two years ago.
My summary at this point is that the practice of summer pruning may be better suited
for some varieties than others. Duke does not generally suffer from late frost as
it blooms later than most varieites. The southern highbush varieties such as Legacy
and Oneal have lower chilling hours and therfore run the risk of blooming too early
and suffering from frost damage.
The summer pruning practice does delay bloom by about 2 weeks so if growers find themselves
with a variety not well suited for their farm, they may benefit from this. Other
benefits I see from summer hedging include; reducing the height of varieties that
are too tall to pick easily, reinvigorating varieties or parts of rows that are not
putting on much new growth, and encouraging side shoots on varieites like chandler
that don’t produce a lot of new growth out of the ground.