After a season of caring for your plants, the best time of the year is the harvest. It may seem like the simplest part of growing blueberries but you should know a few things before you begin.
Blueberries will be a deep blue when they are ripe so it is easy to tell when they are ready to pick. Most blueberries are ready in the late summer but the specific timing will depend on your climate and the variety of berry you are growing. Early bearing bushes can have fruit in May, and later ones will give you berries in September or even October.
You also want to remember that new bushes should not be harvested for at least a couple of years, but the age of the bushes when you planted them makes a difference. Plants should be at least 3 to 4 years old before you pick any berries. And if they were already 3 years old when you planted the bush, then leave them for one season before picking.
Also, some plants have an irregular maturity schedule meaning that not all the berries will be ripe at the same time. This can mean 2 or 3 harvesting sessions in order to get them all. Any kind of machine-picking will need a variety such as Bluejay that ripens all the fruit at the same time.
There are several ways of harvesting blueberries and your preferred method will likely be determined by the number of bushes you have to pick.
Small fields of berries can be picked easily by hand though it can be a time-consuming chore. There are some hand-tools you can use to make it go quicker, such as a berry rake. One designed for blueberries is like a hand-held scoop with tines along the front edge. You just pull the rake through the branches and the leaves slip through the tines but the berries are pulled into the scoop portion. Not only does a rake make the job go faster, it can save extra strain on your back by allowing you to pick from lower bushes with less bending.
The only drawback to using a rake is that it will pick all berries, whether they are ripe or not. For any bushes that ripen over several weeks, this will not work because you will strip off all the still-developing berries while you pick. Only strict hand-picking will work with these types of bushes.
For large growing operations where you have acres of berries, then a tractor-powered harvester is almost a necessity. They operate in much the same way as the berry rake and usually attach to a tractor for power. The plants need to be planted in such a way to allow for a tractor to drive between the rows, which can mean a lot of empty space in your field. For extremely large farms, speciality equipment is available that rides high enough to straddle your berry bushes, meaning you have to leave less space for vehicle passage.