We have picked more than twelve gallons of blueberries from our six bushes this year. But the season is past now, and last night Keith removed the bird netting and put it away for next year. We scoured the end bushes for the last harvest. The final berries are smaller, darker, their sweetness more concentrated. But they are just as delicious as the first berries, the ones that are as big as cherries and whose skins burst on touch. But these taste like the end of summer, I suppose, when it’s still too damn hot but the humidity is waning, and the outdoors becomes tolerable again. It is the taste of the old dissolving into the new, and it elicits the state of mind in which you can’t just “be happy” right now because you’re too aware of what you’re losing.
We planted our blueberries the year Keith’s father died, and so they are a family timepiece to him. They grew up with our youngest daughter. And they have been picked by a parade of children and children’s friends who always put more berries into their mouths than into their buckets. They have become pies and pancakes and muffins and syrups, but mostly we have eaten them just as they come off the bushes, warm and sweet, so unlike the packaged blueberries you can buy at the grocery store.
They require virtually no care, other than a thick bed of peat moss to set their roots into. The moss is a joy to kneel in to pick the lowest berries or to hunker down in during a sudden rain. It makes weeding a breeze, too, since it provides such a soft toehold for the crabgrass. Our blueberries are, of course, wholly organic. Other than a few Japanese beetles, a few tiny moths, and periodically, cicadas that lay eggs in tender branches that then snap off when they hatch, we’ve had no trouble. When the fruit comes on, we cover it with netting that we tie to the wooden frame Keith has built around the bushes. And we roll the ground edge of the netting around two-by-fours so that no varmint can get under it nor the lawnmower destroy it. Most years, something does get trapped: We’ve carted out robins and black snakes, dead and alive.
So goes life at the farm.
I am the chief picker of blueberries in our family, and so I spend a great deal of time with them each summer. When I am serious about it, I can pick a gallon of berries in 3/4s of an hour. (I am “serious” any time six other farm projects await me, which is most of the time.) This requires two-handed picking, which I accomplish by setting a plastic pitcher insider a long-strapped canvas bag and then hanging the bag around my neck. (The photos Keith took are so embarrassing I cannot post them here.) With both of my hands free, I can use the forefingers and thumbs of each to gently roll clusters of berries into the pitcher, or I can use one hand to tilt a branch to an accessible position and pick with the other. In either case, this cuts my picking time in half.
Speedy though I may be, I still am attentive, and I’ve noticed that picking berries has taught me a useful lesson or two over the years. I can tell whether a blueberry is ripe (or overripe) by touch now, a combination of its skin’s tautness and its stem’s level of resistance, which means I don’t end up with a gallon of berries that have to be sorted. I no longer feel the need to start with one bush and move on only when I’ve picked it clean. I no longer feel the need to go hunt up the ones I drop. There are plenty of berries, for goodness sakes, and I don’t begrudge the ones the bugs get! For the same reason, I also don’t bother to glean the windfalls anymore. They aren’t “mouth-ready” anyway.
And that’s important at the Perry farm: We never have to stop and wash what we grow before we put it into our mouths.