Pat’s Wildways: Good Pickings

By Pat Foster-Turley

Once again, another harbinger of late spring is here. It’s picking time for blueberries, and in a rare year, it’s also picking time for my own crop of sweet pea flowers!

Four different varieties of Southern Highbush blueberries are now available for picking at Home Grown Farms in Callahan.

Blueberry picking season begins now and has a varied lifespan depending on the variety of blueberries planted, the location, and, of course, the variable changes in our weather. This past Sunday was prime blueberry picking time for my friend Nancy Pollock and me at Home Grown Farms out in Callahan. Victoria Robas, a retired Jacksonville Port Authority (JAXPORT) executive and the chair of the Planning Advisory Board of the City of Fernandina Beach, found another niche to occupy her after she retired from JAXPORT in 2018. She owns and operates this blueberry farm.

Home Grown Farms is a marvel of modern blueberry growing techniques. Each of the 2,500 blueberry bushes is installed in a separate large container, having grown from a one-gallon size just four years ago. The contained bushes are lined up in long rows, each fed by a watering/fertilizing automated system that delivers fluid four times a day. Below the plants, another watering system is ready to spray the bushes during cold snaps to protect them. Weeds are easily managed on the ground between the rows. Insect damage and bird pests were not evident on the day we visited. How was that managed? I’m curious.

Nancy Pollock chooses blueberries to fill her basket.

But whatever the techniques used, the blueberries were ripe and plump and tasty, right off the bushes. In no time at all, Nancy and I had half-full buckets — about all she and I could find a use for. And that’s not counting the berries I consumed right from the bushes. I had to taste all four varieties — Windsor, Farthing, Arcadia and Emerald, right? These are all early-season Southern Highbush varieties that may only be around until the end of May since Victoria told us she chose these varieties because she didn’t want to be out in the fields when the weather gets hotter.

Clusters of ripe blueberries are easy picking.

If you don’t get to Home Grown Farms in the next couple of weeks, have no fear. Just up the road off Highway 17, the Blueberry Ranch, with its various strains of rabbiteye blueberries, will not open until the end of May but should have berries available for the picking until early July. The blueberry bushes at this farm are grown the usual way, in the ground, and not in pots, providing a more “wild” experience when you pick them. Even before blueberry season, you can also visit any Saturday morning to buy other fresh produce right off the farm.

I am so lucky that I have my own picking option in my backyard right now. Every winter, I sow sweet pea seeds in my elevated beds, and more often than not, this enterprise is a failure. One year, they sprouted too late, and the heat killed the vines before they could flower. Another year, cutworms invaded and ate them all when they were just sprouting to the surface. And, of course, before we moved to elevated beds, the rabbits enjoyed the plants way before I could.

Sweet peas in my own garden are also ripe for the picking now.

But this year! Wow! As always I planted too many seeds and was lax in thinning the plants — I hate to kill any of them. But their crowded state didn’t seem to matter as the vines grew up six feet or more on the wire trellis I prepared for them. It really warms my heart to see, finally, a good crop of sweet peas.

If you aren’t familiar with sweet pea flowers you are missing a real treat. These delicate blooms come in various shades of pink, purple and white, but that’s not the main draw. It’s the smell of sweet peas that I seek. And now, with little bouquets of these flowers in three different rooms in our home, the smell pervades everything. Ahhh. Perfect.

You may not have your own U-Pick opportunity in your own yard like I finally do, but around us, there are many options. Home Grown Farms and other farms in the area are members of the Florida Agritourism Association, a group dedicated to promoting and enhancing the opportunities for people to visit and enjoy local farms. All sorts of crops are available for picking in North Florida besides blueberries, and a number of other farms cater to visitors, too. You can locate some on the Agritourism Association website. Check it out. And get out in the fields before the hot weather chases us indoors again.

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected].

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