Blueberries are one of the easiest fruits to grow in the backyard garden. Provided the proper soil conditions and care, a blueberry planting can be very productive and long-lived. One of the biggest challenges for backyard berry growers is protecting the fruit from marauding birds.
I’ve tried various bird scare techniques to protect berries, from aluminum pie pans to an inflatable rattlesnake, but birds quickly learn that these aren’t genuine threats. Left unchecked, a flock of robins will strip a bush of every ripe berry in short order, especially early in the season when ripening is slow. The only foolproof prevention is to use an exclusion like bird netting.
Bird netting is highly effective at excluding birds, but it has difficulties. Early on, I would drape netting directly on the blueberry shrubs. This technique works but also results in unnecessary stress and perhaps a few foul words. Netting directly on the plant entangles many clusters of berries, including unripe ones, and results in them being ripped off. A simple frame erected over the planting to support the netting reduces frustration.
The frame can be permanent or temporary, but I prefer not to look at it year-round. For a temporary frame, I used ½ inch PVC conduit and fittings. Since it comes down after harvest, the connections are left unglued. The netting helps hold the structure together, and I haven’t had issues with it coming apart, even in some pretty strong winds.
Start by measuring your blueberry planting. Measure the height, width, and length of the planting to cover. The frame should be slightly larger (approximately 1 foot bigger on all sides) than the bushes themselves. Most mature rabbiteye blueberries, the most common blueberry species in SC, are maintained at about 6 feet tall, so the frame will need to be at least 7 feet high on a mature planting to give the plants a little room to grow. Cut the PVC conduit (found with electrical supplies) into sections based on your measurements. To provide the frame with a good base, insert 12-inch sections of ¾ inch metal conduit into the ground. These tubes are the only permanent part of the frame and stay in the ground all year. To assemble, insert the vertical sections of the PVC conduit into the metal conduit. Attach the PVC conduit elbows to the top of each upright. Then connect the horizontal sections of conduit across the planting. To add rigidity and support, I added a crossbar in the top, running the frame’s length using PVC crosses and tees (found with irrigation parts). Once the frame is assembled, drape the bird netting, usually a 2-person job at least. Ensure that the netting is large enough to reach the ground on all sides. For larger plantings, you may have to order bird netting online. Then use sod staples to secure the netting to the soil. Make sure there are no gaps; otherwise, birds will find their way inside and become trapped.
I usually add the frame and netting near the end of flowering. Berries aren’t really at risk of being eaten until they start to ripen, but as berries grow larger, I’ve found that the process is more difficult. To harvest, simply remove a few sod staples, crawl under the net, and pick from underneath the net. Avoid removing the netting before harvest is over to prevent tangles and unnecessary headaches.
Using bird netting with a frame will preserve your harvest and allow you to enjoy more berries than your feathered friends. In addition to blueberries, you can adapt these techniques to protect other fruits as well.
Parts List (available at local home supply stores):
¾ inch metal conduit (cut to 12-inch sections)
½ in PVC conduit (sections cut to height & width of planting)
½ inch PVC conduit elbows (corners)
½ inch PVC tees
½ inch PVC crosses
Bird netting (sections for larger plantings may have to be purchased online)
For more information, see HGIC 1401, Blueberry.