I just wanted to share my experience this past year (2016) on the planning and implementation of a berry patch on our small farm. I hope some can learn from my experience, and others will offer some advice and their own experiences.
My parents bought a 10 acre blueberry farm back in 2013. Which included 10 acres of blueberries, which were planted around the 1960s, 7 acres of open field, and about 8 acres of pine stands. The soil is a perfect sandy loam for woody plants, and the field has been left to it's own for years and is very productive, a functioning prairie, lots of great weeds and grasses with about a foot of decent top soil. The west side of the land is bordered by state forest, so lots of natural habitat for predators, fungi, and beneficial insects. The blueberries haven't received any form of management besides brush hogging the rows before harvesting. The blueberries produce much more than is usually harvested, and the taste is beyond any blueberries I've ever had. There are sections that produce really poorly, but about half are extremely productive, considering no work is put into them. I want to get more involved with the farm, and extend the offerings, as of now, the blueberry season only lasts 3-6 weeks. So I put together a plan for a small Strawberry, Saskatoon, bush cherry planting on the north west side of the blueberries.
We didn't want to destroy the top soil with any disturbance, so we used a sheet mulching method. We mowed the tall grass, and covered the ground with heavy stock agricultural paper and mulched with wood chips about 3-8 inches deep. My hope was the grass and herbaceous plants would act as the green manure without disrupting the soil balance as much as animal manures (there's strong evidence that manures damage mycorrhizae). The paper and mulch would be the weed barrier (I later discovered it takes a lot more than this to kill a prairie, this ain't no weak lawn sod) .
For the strawberries we purchased top soil (a necessary mistake) we made 3 inch pockets in the mulch using a homemade contraption, filled them in with the top soil, and then planted the strawberries directly in.
For the Saskatoons and Cherries we simply dug holes, mixed in some of the top soil and then did our sheet mulching with the paper and about 3 inches of mulch. We initially planned on planting comfrey and lupines as companion plants and a living mulch, but we were pleasantly surprised when hairy vetch took over the ground and yarrow popped up everywhere. So nature seamed to do what it does, and gave us some great plants. We still will be planting more comfrey (for all the reasons we all love comfrey), but decided to hold back on any other companions and just select what naturally comes up.
The First Year Results:
We eventually want to plant an acre using this method, which would be 9 blocks in total, 3x3. I love the "chunking" method that the great Toby Hemenway advocated for in Gaia's Garden. So we wanted to start small and learn before we invested in an acre.
Apparently, 120x60 wasn't small enough. I regret not doing this in 30x30 blocks. If we had any machinery, or 20 people this would have been doable, but 60 x 60 is a lot larger than it looks once you start planting. 2,500 strawberries using this method was agonizing for 2-3 people. The trees/shrubs weren't as difficult, but man was it something putting those strawberries in.
The biggest let down though was when the weeds and grasses started making their way up through the mulch. At that point it felt like all the work had been done in vain. In hindsight we should have laid down a tarp, waited till next spring, and let time do the work for us. The soil would have been prepared properly, and we could have laid down the mulch and planted directly in the soil beneath. This would have saved us exponential amounts of work and given better weed suppression.
So the plan is to extend the strawberries every year, but alternate blocks so it isn't a monocrop acre of strawberries. We'll prepare a 20x60 area this year using a tarp and plant the area with strawberries in the fall. My hope is this method will be much less work, and offer greater weed suppression.
We may plant fruittrees in the strawberry rows that will eventually replace them, this would give us a lot of instant yield, while the trees take time to mature. And we'll be experimenting with living mulches and "cash crop" herb companions as well.
I'll keep this post updated with progress for those who are interested. Look forward to hearing your wisdom and thoughts!
there's strong evidence that manures damage mycorrhizae
needs to be put in proper context, the experiments that yielded this data were on heavily applied spaces.
It is always important to understand how a published study was performed so you can really understand the results.
Mycorrhizal fungi are not your typical "grow in the ground" hyphae fungi, they are root dwellers, there are two varieties, those that encapsulate the root and those that invade the root cells, Most Mycorrhizal fungi are found around trees, they are not particularly fond of acidic soils either
Blue berries are fed more by bacteria than by Mycorrhizal fungi, their acidic growing conditions (ideally 5.5 to5.0 pH) indicate that there will be more bacteria than fungi in the soil.
There are four species of mycorrhizae that do like blue berries and the bushes use exudates to draw those species to them.
Any time you are adding fertilizers that have "hot" (nitrogen rich) materials, you use far less than the recommended spread rate if you want best results for your plants health. N to plants is like sugar to humans, it is very easy to get too much and get fat.
The best way to use items like manures is lightly spread, leave a gap of around 4 inches around the stems, the application should leave some of the soil space visible.
Adding nitrogen should only be done along with some manganese and magnesium because these are the activators for plants uptake of N.
I love it! I am also planting service berry and cherry this year and after three years, my strawberries are finally flowering prolifically. It is amazing how much time a little space can take! It reminds me of a Bible passage where God was telling the Jews he would only help them conquer as much land as they can settle so the wild animals wouldn't take over. I think that happens in the garden too. Grass the first year, if your not expecting yields, I don't necessarily think is a bad thing; just looks messy. Here anyway diligence on a grass patch pulls it back.