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The Lost Art of Growing Blueberries With Fire

Who knew that you burned blueberry bushes in the spring to spur yield? The process was developed by the Passamaquoddy people of Maine long before Europeans arrived, and is still in use, although most commercial growers have mechanized the process. Not Nicolas Lindholm of Blue Hill Berry Company. He is among the few growers who burn the fields by hand, using a crew of volunteers, to produce organic blueberries.  

As Lindholm explains, the 12-14 inch tall blueberry bush we see above ground is only about one-third of the actual plant. Underground is a network of rhizomes—storage houses of energy and food—which work alongside certain strains of fungus to extract what few nutrients subside in the gravelly, acidic Maine soil. “There’s this whole underground world we can’t see, and burning everything aboveground helps enrich the whole thing.” In Lindholm’s case, burning also precludes the use of pesticides and herbicides he’d otherwise need to control pests and competing plant life.

Both hand- and mechanized burning preserve energy within the rhizomes of wild blueberry plants and produce higher yields the following year, but the ease of mechanized burners—often affixed to the back of a tractor—comes at a cost. “The oil that industrial growers use burns at a higher temperature that destroys a lot more of the duff layer,” says Lindholm, referring to the top layer of soil made of decomposed leaves and other organic material. A vast majority of growers today (Lindholm estimates more than 90 percent), including the Passamaquoddy themselves, burn in this fashion. Lindholm, on the other hand, spreads locally sourced straw over his fields to burn. By burning at a lower temperature, the straw protects a crucial soil layer while minimizing Lindholm’s ecological footprint.

Read about the difficult but rewarding process of growing blueberries in the traditional manner at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: Greta Rybus)


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