Some people like to keep birds in cages. Kent Phillips, a Master Gardener in Howard County, likes to keep birds out of his cage.
Each June, Kent and two helpers assemble a 10’ high by 10’ wide by 60’ long cage around his blueberry patch so the Phillips family, not neighborhood birds, will feast on the 16 to 20 gallons of fruit that his nine high bush blueberry bushes produce from early June into early August.
The uprights of the cage consist of 10-foot lengths of ¾-inch PVC pipe. Each upright is strengthened by a 10’ piece of rebar. Cross-supports at the top link everything together with a system of PVC T’s and L’s. Some are glued permanently, while others aren’t, to facilitate assembling the cage in spring and taking it down in the fall. He pounds a 3-foot piece of one-inch iron pipe into the ground to make 12” to 18” holes into which he slips the PVC/rebar uprights. He then wraps the huge, rectangular PVC box in plastic bird netting.
“I started out 20 years ago with a wooden structure,” Kent explained, “but that was frustrating because the bird netting snagged on every splinter. After a couple of years I switched to PVC pipe. I use plastic ties to attach the netting to the PVC pipes.”
Kent estimated it takes about 2 ½ hours to put up the structure. “But all the work is worth it,” he said. “I have six varieties of early, mid-season, and late blueberries that produce over 6 to 7 weeks. Harvest depends somewhat on the weather.”
Kent listed three important factors to keep in mind when raising blueberries—pH of the soil, water, and the every-hungry birds.
“The cage takes care of the birds, of course” he said. “My drip irrigation system takes about 3 hours a week to put down an inch of water, without which the berries would be stunted and production would fall. The Home and Garden Information Center has outlined a program using ferrous sulfate and elemental sulfur to keep the pH of the soil between 4.5 and 5.5, the range for maximum fruiting.
“We’ve been picking since early June,” Kent added. “This morning my grandson and my two daughters picked a couple of gallons and cleaned me out.”
What does his family do with up to 20 gallons of blueberries?
“We eat about half fresh and freeze the rest for later use,” he said with a smile. “Our wintertime favorites are blueberry muffins, blueberry pancakes, and blueberry buckle. They’re hard to beat.”
“I’m sure,” I replied, salivating at the thought.