Have you ever wanted to own your own orchard and work shoulder to shoulder with your soul mate? Ken and Janet Stewart are living that dream. They have operated Blueberry Hill Orchard and Berry Farm in Manitou Beach, Mich., as a dynamic duo for over 20 years.
I know I had a dream about a farm like this when I was a young girl. They grow all of my favorite fruits on their Lenawee County farm. In the summer, the blueberry bushes are heavily loaded with thumb-size berries. Fall brings softball-size peaches, sweet pears, luscious plums, sweet and tart cherries and apples you have to eat with two hands because they are so big!
I visited their farm last fall and thought I was walking through Alice’s Wonderland. I plucked a blueberry that was overlooked from the last harvest and it was as big around as a quarter. The apples hanging from the trees were enormous and I had my cheeks stuffed with a pink lady in no time. So, I knew I had to stop by again when they were busy pruning their orchard for the harvest ahead.
Smart pruning equals bigger fruit
“We have a very unique micro climate here in Manitou Beach. Our farm is one of the highest points in the county, so we get strong winds out of the west and that will push our trees and shrubs to lean to the east. Being on a hill has its advantages when it comes to frost. We are always a little warmer on the hill since cold air sinks into the lower valley,” said Mr. Stewart.
“We start pruning our trees as soon as the weather allows,” says Mr. Stewart. He and his wife Janet tackle each tree and shrub as a pruning team. “The first thing we do is really take a look at the structure of the tree or shrub. We need to get rid of branches that are going to stick out into the driving lane. “We try to get keep the bushes from rubbing each other so they don’t scuff the other fruit or encroach on the other shrubs beside them,” he continued.
“Pruning for highest fruit production is a little different than pruning a shrub or tree just for aesthetic value,” said Mrs. Stewart. When pruning for looks, you would take out anything broken or crossing. Then start getting rid of limbs or small branches that don’t follow the basic shape you want for that shrub or tree. “For blueberry shrubs, we want to shape them to give us the most fruit at an easy level to pick. We will get rid of really low and really high branches first. Then we look at each stem coming from the ground to determine which ones have the fat buds that will be producing fruit, and which ones have the tiny buds, which will produce only leaves. We want more fruit, so we will take out more of the leafing branches,” she explained.
Once I had a pair of pruners in my hand, my natural reaction was to cut out any branches that are crossing or wrapped around each other. “We keep some branches to become a support for younger branches,” said Mr. Stewart. “Younger stems aren’t as strong to hold up the fruit, so we might wrap them around an older one that is more stable. We sometimes even coax branches with a heavy berry load to the other side of the shrub,” he explained.
The Stewarts have really enjoyed their years on the farm and are thinking about a new adventure ahead. They would like to sell their Shangri-La. “This is a very fulfilling career. We hand pick our fruit and sell it at the Farmers Market in Toledo and Jackson,” he said. “But it is time to find another couple or family to carry on the growing tradition.”
Apples, peaches and cherries
There’s more to prune. The Stewarts and I tackle the fruit trees next week.
Contact Kelly Heidbreder at firstname.lastname@example.org
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