These were the first plants to get transplanted from their pint-sized nursery containers into their 5-gallon grow bags. They’ve become root-bound, sickly and some appear to be suffering their last days.
I’ve been sounding the alarm almost daily: “We’ve got to get these guys into new containers or I’m afraid we’re going to lose them.” A limited budget has been the main reason for the delay.
Finally, last week we received 30 cubic yards of a soil mix that we concocted from observation and research, a mix of compost, sand and shredded redwood.
We found a supplier who had the ingredients we wanted and who churned up in his mixer equal parts of double-shredded redwood and sweet-smelling compost.
We have two enormous piles of our newly purchased mix sitting in the middle of the field, which will almost be enough to fill the 400 used 15-gallon containers we picked up for the first phase of transplanting.
This initial phase of relocating our plants into new containers will be an experiment of sorts, as have so many other approaches we’ve taken in caring for our plants.
While discussing what sort of mix to use, we discovered that there’s plenty of room for debate about what works best. I’ve pored over articles and websites on issues related to blueberries and it amazes me how different the opinions are.
Clearly, there’s plenty of agreement on the basics but I learned that each situation is a little different when you consider climate, soil conditions, watersheds and plant varieties.
Finding the right planting mix, we knew, would be critical to making sure our plants will take off in their new homes. What went into the mix, we discovered, would be more challenging than we realized.
They need fluffy, loamy soil with lots of sand. The places where blueberries naturally do well have plenty of leaf fall and organic matter, a thick blanket of forest litter.
Ideally, peat moss should be included in the mix, between 20 to 40 percent, then compost, and sand, depending on which university extension program or supplier you consult.
Some sources say it can take anywhere from six months to a year to prep the soil with the proper amendments, especially in challenging clay soils such as we have here. Even then, there’s no guarantee the plants will do well.
Less-than-ideal soil conditions will eventually result in mineral deficiencies, disease, pests and other related issues.
As I’ve said before, it’s a lot easier to take care of healthy plants than it is to care for sickly plants.
We decided to keep them in their containers, which allows us more control. And, of course, container farming has its own set of special conditions and exceptions that will be quite different from planting in the ground.
The main concern here are the delicate root systems unique to blueberry shrubs, which, unlike most plants, don’t have typical root hairs or tap roots that extend down into the soil to absorb and collect moisture.
Blueberry root systems are composed mostly of fine fibrous delicate material that looks quite similar to peat moss and are not capable of penetrating compacted soils.
Mature blueberry roots will grow between 12-18 inches deep, which is shallow by most standards and will mostly spread themselves along the surface. They don’t absorb water very well and they don’t tolerate excessively dry or wet conditions.
Given the challenges and difficulties, it’s amazing our plants have performed as well as they have in their little containers. Already, some stand close to five feet tall but don’t have much of a spread beyond the 5-gallon root balls.
I’ve torn into dozens of the grow bags only to discover that over time our original mix got heavy and dense toward the bottom of the bags, making it impossible for the roots to grow, which explains the sad condition of some of our plants.
In some bags, the planting medium had turned into a solid muddy mass with few or no roots growing into it.
Thus, this time around, we decided to create a fluffier mix with lots of organic matter and mulch on top to give the delicate roots a chance to develop, and to keep the plants moist along the surface where the roots also seem to like to spread themselves.
While peat moss is preferred as a key element in the planting mix of blueberries, it’s also expensive and difficult to find in bulk quantities. Most supplies seem to come from Canada.
Additionally, there has been some debate about the depletion of bogs where peat grows and the heavy impacts that the demand for peat as a growing medium for nurseries places on the environment.
In the end, for us, cost was the prohibitive and deciding factor.
We chose to look for an alternative medium. Next in line, we discovered, is shredded coconut husks. That too turned out to be difficult to obtain and remain cost effective.
We scurried about, trying to find an alternative medium for peat.
Upon first setting some plants into their containers, we used shredded redwood for mulch to protect the sensitive roots and keep them moist. These plants seemed to like the stuff, growing and spreading their roots, as many sources have suggested, right into the redwood material.
Through such observation, I decided, perhaps against sound reason, that shredded redwood would serve as a decent substitute for peat moss.
Later, after delivery of our mountain of soil mix, I found a warning against using cedar or redwood as a planting medium. My heart sank. I thought that we’d covered all the bases and possibilities.
We’ll go ahead and use the new mix; it can’t be any less effective than what we started with. As Zsu Zsi our farm manager often says, “There’s no one right way to do this. Every one has an opinion. We’re going to learn by doing.”
I like her attitude and approach. We can always make adjustments. We have 1,100 more plants to go after we get through these first 400 transplants. We’ll be perfecting our mix and hopefully becoming less mixed up ourselves as we go. §
Stacey Warde writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he tends a two-acre container farm of blueberries not far from scenic coastal Highway 1. He has received numerous awards for his writing and is a former publisher of the literary magazine, The Rogue Voice.