Sustainable Blueberry Production Using Geotextile Fabric and Gravel Mulch for Weed/Water Management

Project Overview

FNC02-413
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2002: $5,475.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:

Commodities

  • Fruits: berries (other)

Practices

  • Crop Production: application rate management, tissue analysis
  • Soil Management: earthworms, organic matter

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGOUND
    Our farm is a 200 acre diversified farm in an unglaciated area of Southeastern Ohio that has been following soil and water Conservation Agreement Plans since 1976. the farm’s major crops include an organic vegetable garden, blueberries (approximately 700 bushes 3 year and 8 year old plants), red and black raspberries, thorn less blackberries and beef cows/claves. Conservation practices include combining managed intensive grazing techniques (MIG) with Forest Stewardship (100 acres) practices to reduce soil erosion to maintain an ecosystem conducive to recreation, wildlife management, forest protection, timber management, grassland agriculture, and edible landscaping.

    We are active members in our local grazing association and past winners of the Goodyear Outstanding Cooperator Award (1997) and Vinton County Outstanding Soil and Water Conservation District Cooperator Award (1992). Also, we were pleased to be one of five families awarded Ohio’s 2000 Conservation Family Award by the Ohio Department of Natural Resource’s Soil and Water Conservation division and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation for utilizing good conservation practices and techniques. We were published in the September 2000 “Ohio Farmer” magazine.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
    The objectives of the project were to design a low maintenance, economic, environmentally sound, and sustainable blueberry production paradigm. This innovation design used geotextile fabrics with washed river gravel mulch to inhibit weed growth, conserve valuable moisture and nitrogen, and protect the shallow plant root system from sun heating the soil and potential winter freeze. My last eight years of experience with blueberry planting/maintenance have focused on using a variety of fabrics and mulches. Non-woven, needle punched polypropylene and 5 year+ thin “Wal-mart” nursery fabrics proved unsuccessful. Weeds including witchgrass grew through needle punched fabric and thin nursery fabrics tore. Weeds would not pull off fabrics. A review of the literature indicated that labor-intensive weeding, mechanical tiling/mowing, use of herbicides and/or natural herbicides (i.e., corn glutton, SARE Producer Grant Project FNC95-102 and FNC98-244) were costly ineffective weed controls. Furthermore, literature stressed the importance of mulch in blueberry production; however, noted numerous limitations. The Producer Grant FNC97-193 noted that “the effect of mulch on blueberry plants and the soil is very impressive… Weed control was improved but far from perfect and would require additional use of directed herbicide applications… The degradation rate of the mulch wood chip is rapid… A 4 to 6 inch application rapidly settling to 2 to 4 inches… and by the end of the growing season… was less than ½.” inch. [emphasis added].

    In my experience, yearly applications of sawdust, wood ship, and/or bark was found to be labor-intensive and high cost. Also, high cost fertigation/irrigation systems demonstrated in blueberry production at the OSU Extension Research and Extension Center in Piketon, Ohio, were possibly an unnecessary design for Ohio producers.

    PROCESS
    Therefore, I used this grant to address the aforementioned issues in blueberry production by using two different woven geotextile fabrics with non-degrading washed river gravel as a mulch. Less than five rolls of 100% Polyester Continuous Filaments Thermally Bonded, 3.5 oz. US 35 Spun Bond Landscaping Fabric (Appendix 1, US Fabrics Property Values) was used to cover twenty-five 100’ rows of blueberry plants, 6’ apart, with plants 4’ apart in each row. A woven geotextile fabric made of 100% polypropylene yarns, US 200, (Appendix 11, US Fabrics Property Values) was used to outline the perimeter of the lay-out approximately 175’ long and 120’ wide. Approximately 130 ton of washed river gravel (size #56) was used as a thin application of mulch on both fabrics to inhibit UV light, retain moisture, allow water drainage, retard weed growth and enhance the beauty of the landscape.

    SITE SELECTION
    The site was on top of a hill at 1040’ elevation in an open area to allow air to move freely and avoid “pockets” where cold air may tend to settle. Site preparation started 3-17-03. An old pasture field site was heavily tilled and shaped with an 8’ back blade on a tractor to contour a gentle slope. Soil was assessed as moderately high in organic matter, clay loam, with a surprising Ph of 6.2. by adding an approximate 65 tons of old wood bark from a sawmill into the planting rows along with 2 pounds of Soil Sulfur Degrasul (a soluble granular sulfur), at a rate of 2 lbs per 100’ sq., an acceptable lower acidic Ph of below 5.5 to 4.5 could be achieved within the planting year.

    On 4-29-03 a trench approximately 100’ foot long, 12” wide and 9” deep was plowed with a single plow using a 3000 Ford Tractor. Twenty-four more trenches were plowed, each 6 foot apart and filled with wood bark. The wood bark was applied with a front-loader on a 6060 Allis/Chalmer tractor, following in the same tracks of those made by the Ford Tractor. Approximately 3-1 yard scoops were dumped per row and was then hand raked into the trench and made into a nine inch high, eighteen inch wide, raised planting bed or wood bark and existing dirt. Sulfur was then applied into each row.

    FABRICS
    Five landscape fabrics (US 35) rolls, 12 ½’ X 300’ were rolled out and covered the entire area including the raised beds and the paths between. The geotextile (US 200) 12 ½’ X 300’ was then put down around and under the woven wire fence around the perimeter to inhibit weed growth beneath the fence.

    GRAVEL MULCH
    Approximately 130 tons of washed river gravel, size 56 was applied with the front loader on top of the fabrics utilizing the same tracks used to plow and apply mulch (the paths between the raised beds). It should be noted that in a separate area, approximately 17 tons of stone (1 truck load) was dumped onto the US 200 fabric to scoop “off of” with the front loader, in various places. The Allis/Chalmer was then used to scoop the river gravel off the UW 200 fabric and into piles, in the paths, on top of the US 35 fabric. This prevented the stone form sinking into the ground. The piles of stone were then hand raked to apply a thin layer of river gravel mulch over the entire fabric area.

    PLANT VARIETIES/NURSERIES
    Five nurseries were chosen to obtain desired variety and assess performance; Miller, Indiana Berry, Burgess, DeGrandChamp, and Nourse. Each carry a state certificate of inspection and/or are commercial growers.

    Fourteen 2-year old varieties were chosen from blueberry trials at the OSU Center at Piketon, Ohio based on plant yields with a mix of early, mid, mid-late, and late season ripening cultivars.

    PLANTING
    Two hundred and eighty plants arrived 4-30-03 and were placed in a trench with wood bark mulch for approximately 30 days prior to planting on 5-03-03. As other plants arrived they were placed in the trench as well. The earliest ripening cultivars, Duke, Patiot, and Spartan were planted in rows of approximately 25 plants per row. (60 Duke from DeGrandChamp; 50 Duke from Nourse; 50 Patriot from Nourse; 20 Patriot from DeGrandChamp; 30 Patriot form Indiana Berry; 20 Spartan from DeGrandChamp; 30 Spartan from Indiana Berry). Four laborers took 8 hours to plant. Plants were kept wet on Agua Gel solution. Agua Gel is an absorbent formulation which when added to water, forms a slurry. It is used as a root dip prior to planting. This slurry clings to the roots and acts as a reservoir of water which is readily available to plants when they are put in the ground.

    Plants were set 2 inches deeper than the existing nursery stock, in holes which were cut out in the fabric approximately 1’ x 1’. Three ounces of DeGrandChamp’s slow time release fertilizer (Woodace 20-4-11) was placed in each hole after planting. Sawdust was applied approximately 4 inches deep around each planting hole. All plants were watered with 250 gallons of water.

    On 5-04-03, 40 Blue Jay, 40 Toro, 20 Sierra, and 40 Blue Crop from DeGrandChamp were planted in six hours with four laborers in the same manner as above. On 5-19-03, 50 Herbert from Miller, 20 Brigetta and 20 Elliot form DeGrandChamp plants were planted the same way in two hours with two laborers. On 6-08-03, 12 Colville plants from Burgess were planted in the same way. All flowering buds were removed from all plants after planting and thereafter during the first year.

    The project was extended for one year, and on 4-06-04, 25 Bonus, 25 Berkley and 25 Blue Jay from DeGrandChamp were planted to complete 25 planting rows. On 4-07-04, 25 Blue Jay from DeGrandChamp were planted in “dead holes” from the prior years planting losses. In this year’s planting, plants were kept wet by applying Spagnum Peat Moss in each hole. Six bushels of Peat planted 100 plants.

    On 4-08-04, two hundred fifty pounds of sulfur was applied around the plant and on the raised beds. Approximately 115 pounds of Wood Ace fertilizer was applied as well.

    On 5-28-04, two pick-up loads of sawdust were applied to 560 plants in four hours, using one laborer and a wheel barrel.

    WEED MANAGEMENT
    The first weeding was done 7-16-03 and resulted in two 5 gallon buckets of weeds which took on hour and one laborer. The second weeding was done on 8-29-03 and consisted of three 5 gallon buckets and took on hour and one laborer. The common annual weeds, including foxtail, lam’s quarters, thistle, dandelions, gypsum weed, pig weed, quack grass, crab grass and maple tree sprouts all pulled off the fabric easily. A few weeds were pulled form the plant holes, with the sawdust and stone remaining.

    In May 2004, similar weeds with more “vine creeping” varieties were easily pulled. However, the weeds increased in amount to 4 wheel barrows and took one laborer approximately 8 hours. In July and August 2004, there was an increase in weeds and took three laborers 8 hours to remove. It is estimated at this time, it will take one laborer approximately 8 hours to remove the variety of existing weeds including crab grass, thistle, creeping weeds, etc.

    RESULTS/DISCUSSION
    In growing blueberries, one must be willing to practice patience. As noted in MSU Extension Bulletin 564: “the first full crops occur six to eight years after planting… no crop is picked the first 2 years; third year ½ pint to a bush; fourth year 1-2 pints a bush… 4-6 pints to a bush can occur as early as the sixth year and should be expected by the eighth year.” One must be cautious on an acceptable rate of return on the initial cost of establishing a planting, maintenance, labor/picking and marketing. However, blueberry bushes have been noted to produce for 20+ years at high levels of production with proper care and pruning.

    GEOTEXTILE FABRICS
    The benefits of using both fabrics in this project meet my expectation. The landscape Spun Bound Fabric (US 35) was used rather than woven geotextile Us 200 mainly because of it permittivity of water which was twice as fast as US 200. However, US 35 occasionally did tear when trying to pull crabgrass with all of its tightly bound roots. US 200 did not tear, puncture or let weeds through, and crabgrass easily pulled off the fabric. The benefits of both fabrics should be noted: 1) reduces heat stress on plants with reduced irrigation (if any) requirements over the long term; 2) weeds will not penetrate fabric and are easily removed; 3) water, air fertilizer, and granular sulfur, were allowed to flow into the soil; 4) helps stop mulch wash out in heavy rain; 5) eliminates soil erosion; 6) eliminates loss of mulch due to soil erosion; 7) resists mildew and rotting; 8) helps insulate roots from sudden temperature changes; 9) minimizes planting/bed maintenance and helps maintain moisture in the soil necessary for blueberry shallow root system; 10) reduces need for chemical herbicides to control weeds. The cost per square foot is approximately $.05 and is a good investment.

    MULCHING/WEED CONTORL
    The washed river gravel was used over wood based products for a variety of reasons: 1) the degradation rate of wood based products is rapid and needs yearly applications; 2) limestone could not be used as it my increase the Ph; 3) river gravel has a neutral effect on Ph; 4) stone is applied only once; 5) pulling weeds in wood based products often attaches to root system and “clean” massive root systems are revealed with the use of stone; 6) wood products introduces termites and ants; 7) mulching between rows with fabric eliminates possible infiltration of weed/grasses into plant beds; 8) stone enhances beauty of landscaping and invites Kill Deer and other birds to nest on stone an sawdust hole; 9) cost of stone is $14.50 per ton delivered – wood products, depends on availability and could be cost prohibitive; and 10) conserves valuable nitrogen in soil and does not allow sin to penetrate the soil, especially with urea based fertilizer.

    Other noted facts: size of stone #56 most conducive to walking on and allows utilization of a wheelbarrow. #4 stone is too big and “p” gravel too tight and may hold dirt. Washed river gravel should be as clean as possible. Any sand or dirt in the gravel is an excellent medium for weeds to grow and was a main concern in this project. Make sure trucking company brings washed gravel and not sand with gravel. Also, do not allow gravel to get into ground when unloaded. Use geotextile fabric 200 under stone to load off of. Fabric 200 did tear somewhat with the use of the loader; however, was still used under road access areas.

    NURSERY PLANTS/VARIETIES
    All five nurseries shipped two-year old plants acceptable for planting. Plants cost less form DeGrandChamp Nursery and most from Miller Nursery. Plant varieties looking most productive to date are from Nourse Nursery. The biggest losses in plants were from Indiana Berry and DeGrandChamp. Reason for loss undetermined.

    It should be noted that earlier varieties in Ohio market before Michigan berries are available, on approximately June 15th per observation of older berry plants on the farm. Early ripening cultures require bird netting and are most susceptible to bird damage. Late varieties (ie. Elliot) were not as affected by birds. Production was from June 15th to August 15th. Hotter end of July/August temperature may necessitate the need for drip irrigation.

    LOWERING Ph/SPRING PLANTING
    A Hellige-Troug soil reaction (Ph) tester was used in April 2004. Ten holes were analyzed with the color soil reactor chart. A possible average 5.8 to 6.0 Ph was noted. Further testing is warranted.

    Also, applying 250 pounds of sulfur in April 2004 may help in reduction of Ph.

    A leaf analysis will be used to measure Ph and nutrient needs in June 2005.

    Annual application of sawdust to holes may adjust Ph and provide additional organic matter. Trying to lower a Ph of soils testing above 5.5 may not be practical. It is a long, expensive task to acidify and may result in uncertainty.

    Probably the single most important lesson learned from this project is to start with the correct Ph and organic matter appropriate for blueberry production.

    Spring 2004 planting used peat moss instead of Gel to hold moisture during planting. The gel in 2003 plants appeared to hold moisture/hopefully not too much moisture. Therefore, wet peat was applied in 100 during planting. Plant loss was 20%. Possible reasons are unknown.

    PEOPLE
    Rory Lewandowski, Extension Agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Athens County, 289 W. Union Street, Athens, Ohio 45701-2394, 740-593-8555. He made site visits and assisted in review of my grant application and scheduling a farm visit for pasture walk and berry production.

    John B. Meredith, District Conservationist, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Conservation Services, 2026 Fairgreens Rd., Jackson, Ohio 45640, 740-296-5208. He made numerous site visits and was available for discussion and review of berry management.

    Sandy Kuhn, Berry Coordinator and Christine Welch, Horticulture Assistant at Ohio State University South Center at Piketon, 1854 Shyville Road, Piketon, Ohio 45661-9749, 740-289-2071. He consulted on bird netting and marketing.

    Dr. Dick Funt, Extension & Small Fruit Specialist, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio was available by telephone for questions concerning how to take a leaf analysis and where to send samples.

    Bob Hendershot, Grassland Specialist/Agronomist, Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Hal Kneen, Extension Agent, Agricultural/Natural Resources, Meigs County were speakers at the June 19, 2003 Grazing Tour Blueberry Production Review.

    OUTREACH
    On 6-19-03, Grazing Tour/Blueberry Production Review hosted approximately 40 people from a 4-County Area, including Athens, Jackson, Meigs, and Vinton Counties. Speakers included Bob Hendershot, Rory Lewandowski, and Hal Kneen. A dinner was prepared by the Athens Landmark, Inc.

    Vinton County Soil and Water Conservation District organized an event with elected officials and conservation partners from throughtout Vinton County on 10-03-03 to visit the Blueberry Production Site as one of the three site visits on tour. Those who participated were three county Commissioners; District Supervisors; Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Soil and Water Program Specialist and two Division of Forestry Specialists, District Conservationist; Executive Director of Farm Service Agency for Jackson/Vinton Counties; The Vinton county Courier, and Vinton County Soil and Water Board of Supervisors and staff.

    Several other individual project tours were given during the summer of 2003 through the summer of 2004. we expect continued interest in this project and will continue to show interested parties the results of this project in years to come.

    PROGRAM EVALUATION
    Our experience with the North Central SARE Program has been excellent. We are grateful for the opportunity to participate, and for the year extension to finish and assess the project outcomes. The SARE Producer Grant Program makes possible an opportunity for producer initiated research, particularly for projects such as ours, where the initial cost is high and there is no anticipated cash flow for up to three years. We greatly appreciate the opportunity to participate in the SARE Program.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.