Gardening: Blueberries and Bluebirds
The Spring Rush is on, and while I am tending some deer pruned blueberries I can watch the courting rituals of the Bluebirds.
“Diane, look!” I said one recent morning from our coffee corner of the kitchen, “Bluebirds!”
Mr. Bluebird was on a fence post nearby the bird feeders (which is unusual). He was hopping up and down flapping his wings to entice his true love. Then the evil rival came on the scene and up, up, and away to fight another day. So now we had at least three, two males and one female, maybe more – who knows?
Bluebirds are happiness from the old song. They are a vibrant iridescent blue small bird with a robin red rust breast. Once you see them, all birds color pale into insignificance.
Mr. Woods, from Wood’s Funeral Home visited some years back and had noted, “Gosh! You have a lot of birds.” as he looked through the big window. He quickly picked up on the large feeders we used; 20 pound ones with an extra scoop of black oil seed mixed in the wild birdseed mix. Also each morning I set out a ¼ cake of suet-especially now in the nesting season, which is quickly cleaned up by evening.
In fact everything is cleaned up by evening and if there are a few seeds left over, the Raccoons are very efficient.
Early morning Crow call is a harbinger of a flock of six crows beaking about for suet. However between raccoons and crows I had to go to ¼ cake a day to have enough for the primary birds.
To give you an idea on how smart crows are my neighbor Carolyn raised a sweet corn crop each year. The crows were waiting. They have to have their due. When she quit the garden, they flew to her window and pulled out her screens, all the while letting her know she was suppose to raise corn for them.
Woodpeckers are smart too. We have the Downy woodpecker and once in a while the very large red headed woodpecker. If they do not get their suet they fly up and peck on Diane’s window, if that does not work, they fly around to my window and peck. It is amazing how birds here at the Back2theLand, control us. (And other pets too.)
Apparently this is a good year for Bluebirds and they are making city intrusions as rural lands (their favorite) are disappearing around Blacksburg. A lovely lady from South Africa was telling me that they are numerous around their suburban home in the Christiansburg area.
Some years back Diane had decided that they needed mealworms for their diet and “we” were going to raise them. I hauled in a large plastic tub, filled it with horse feed; Diane ordered some …… beetles and soon the tub was covered in crawling little mealworms. I quietly gathered them up and placed them in a large beetle feeder just for the birds to get too. The feeder was a solid hip roof, perhaps 18” x 12” and a sidewall of Plexiglas with two bluebird size nest holes cut on either end.
Well they quickly cleaned up the mealworms inside and then built a nest. In the meantime the mealworms were hatching from larvae into beetles and we had to expand to another big tub, and more to maintain them. I could see the handwriting on the wall-“…would be bird lovers carried off by beetles…” At the end of the season, I placed the tubs outside and the beetles disappeared. Oh yes, Diane did not handle the larvae-such tasks are for husbands.
I was also tasked with building Bluebird houses. The Internet offers a great deal of information about bluebirds and nesting accommodations. Although I have plenty of tools I did not have access at that time to red cedar wood. The pine wood housing lasts about 10 years. Cedar forever. Well maybe not forever but a long, long time. The bottom, line-then as well as now- is that the boards to make the housing add up to cost more than buying a pre-made cedar house. Lowes has as one at @$11.00 and Wal-Mart, the identical one for $10.00. So I bought two and placed these on the front chain link fence facing the hayfield. The Bluebird books tell me to have the nest hole facing away from the prevailing winds, which is westward for us. I had two 3’ wood poles, which I mounted on the Bluebird box with the predrilled screw holes, and two provided screws. This raised the nest boxes above the top edge of the metal chain link (OUR DOG FENCE) about two feet. Total height: 7’.
The references call for placing the nest boxes on fence posts looking out across a vast open area. I think that placing them on six feet high farm posts assuming you have a fence row- risk the Bluebirds to Blacksnakes. Now I am a BIG fan of Blacksnakes since they clean up rodents and other poisonous snakes, but alas baby birds are tempting. So my new long range improved nest boxes will, next fall time, be mounted on 10’ ¾” black pipe. One foot will be set into the ground and a bit of cement will anchor it in place. This leaves the actual nest box at over 8’ high. I have watched “Girti’, our favorite winter residing attic Blacksnake pull herself up in a corner from the ground to the eve and squeeze into a small hole while her chin starts to pull up the rest of the 7’ or so, long body. (These treasures clean up the mice in the lower floors and basement. And in the warm spring they slip out for fieldwork.)
To complicate Gerti’s attraction I will have mounted a naval rat guard to near the top of the pole, extending out in a circle some 3 feet. This is probably not necessary but Diane speaks, and she gets all excited over her birds. Blacksnakes grow an easy 7 feet as measured by the shedding of the skin each spring. We do not hurt Blacksnakes for the good that they do.
I place the nest boxes some twenty, or more, feet apart so there is no squabbling. I follow the theory NOT top remove the used nesting material and Bluebirds will winter over and actually crowd into an old nest box for warmth. Old nesting material adds to warmth. Other “birders” have different views and meticulously clean out old nesting material.
Diane just told me she has some freeze dried mealworms that I will be setting out shortly. She wants you to know you can order these from Drs. Foster and Smith at:
It is not too late to start your Blueberries. I had some two-year-old plants I had forgotten about in #10 cans and planted a dozen more yesterday. Planting your bare rooted order of Blueberries is easy and this is what I do.
I first select a warm, sunny site that takes into consideration when the plant is at its maturity it will spread 5 feet. You will need at lest two varieties, three varieties are better and you will want two-year old plants from the nursery as they are well started with their shallow root systems.
Go to Southern States Farm Store and buy a bag of ground powder Sulfur. You can take a plastic dry milk carton and punch some small holes in the bottom. Fill the container with the sulfur. Actually fertilizer is not needed with Blueberries as they grow on a rock. But you will after the winter sets in use an acid fertilizer such as Azalea fertilizer and make a liquid batch to pour around the plant. They have shallow roots and are not big spreading roots either. Do not dig up the roots, just pour it on and I suggest that what ever the fertilized manufacturer says in mixing instructions, cut the fertilizer volume in half. Working with varieties of different plants, different soils, different pH and etc, it is too easy to burn the plants with chemical boosts. You can also pour a gallon of compost water-manure water over the plants roots instead of the chemical mix.
Since I have lots of space I just tilled a loose straight line 3 ‘ wide. Blueberries require acid soil so adjust your pH for about pH5. Just sprinkle the sulfur lightly down the tilled track. Till it again. Come back in 3 days and pH test the soil.
When the soil checks out you are ready to plant your different variety blueberry plants. I suggest an early, midseason and summer varieties, each interspaced so you have good pollination. You can, until you start raising bees, hand pollinate with a small soft brush.
Rake the soil up into a long mound like a windrow. Previously for a couple of days you have been soaking the plants in a bucket of water. There exists at Wal-Mart an organic booster called “ Super Thrive” in a small bottle that as a miracle cure does improve rooting. You can add a few drops to the water. Carry the entire bucket with plants to the windrow. Scoop out a shallow space, open the root spread like a saucer and sprinkle on some rooting powder as we had mentioned in previous articles. Gently pull the soil up and over the plant roots and pack down. If the soil is dry, you can pre-water from the bucket, then pull the soil up and over the roots. Try to make a small depression to collect rainwater and your first summer of watering every week. Space the plants at least 5’ apart center to center.
Grass is going to get between the pants and this does not endanger growth. You can make nice mulch with shredded bark and such, commercially purchased, or run through the shredder. Be careful.
In a year, or so, the bush will start to get bigger and bigger, and that means more blueberries. The Bluebirds, being insect eaters will keep down the harmful bug population. So plan on another nest box.
The deer will prune these plants down to a stalk. We will be putting up a guaranteed deer proof fence soon therefore I will belabor you with more projects then. In the mean time check out the catalogs we have previously listed in the archives and you will find many, many Blueberry plants.
Old time herbalists used to use the Blueberry plant for treating Diabetics. We can cover this topic at a later date with reader interest.
After your Blueberry plants are growing you may want to consider Lingonberry between the plants as an added treat, Bilberry is good too.
COPYRIGHT: 2009, Back2theLand, Mark Steel.