Blue Horizons

This Victorian family were pioneers of Blueberry Growing in Australia - and now, the second generation is taking it a few steps further

Perched high on Murradoc Hill in Drysdale on the Bellarine Peninsula, with sweeping views of the Melbourne skyline to Port Phillip Bay’s heads, TuckerBerry Hill is a pioneering family venture; a PYO (pick-your-own) blueberry farm run by Christine and David Lean.

Christine’s parents Margaret and John Tucker established the 20ha farm in 1981 after having initially planted the fruit around the highlands of Euroa and Caveat.
“Mum started growing blueberries in 1976,” explains Chris, “but it became too difficult spending time up there and also in Melbourne where they lived, so they planned to plant 4ha under blueberries at Drysdale.

“In those days, that was considered a lot but the water availability restricted how much they planted. They prepared the block, which had one dam and three trees, built the shed, planted trees, laid out irrigation and prepared the ground before planting the blueberries.

“It was a fledgling industry and Mum was one of the first four growers.

Nobody knew about blueberries then, so she had to promote them; she started the Australian Blueberry Growers Association with herself as president.

“Mum was awarded an OAM (Order of Australia medal) for her work establishing the blueberry industry, which was one of the only industries that began as an Australian association rather than a state-based one.”

Today, TuckerBerry Hill has 2ha planted with 3500–4000 plants after consolidated when some died during the drought.

Varieties include the early-fruiting Blue Crop, Blue Rose, a new variety called Reika and the later-fruiting Northlands, along with other unnamed varieties, some planted by Mrs Tucker at the experimental stage.

The plants have a high bush growth habit and will endure temperatures down to zero and below in winter and up to 40–50 degrees in summer — so long as the water is kept up to them.

“You need that change in order to get the new growth,” explains Chris. “The lifespan of bushes is around 60 years but here it is more like 20 as it’s a tough environment for them with our heavy basalt lava-flow black clay. We add a lot of organic material to build the rows up and this soil just eats it.

“The plants have a mass of fine-hair feeder roots just below the surface, which go out to about the drip line, and a woody root with a few roots that go down. The mulch protects the roots as well as retaining the moisture and the drip line goes under the mulch, so they get about a litre an hour.”

With some drought conditions in 1997, the family had noticed more birds about but hadn’t factored that in as a dramatic problem until the starlings just kept coming and taking the fruit. That season finished in the second week of January as the fruit was all gone by then and Mrs Tucker said they would either net or get out. No one at that stage had attempted to net, so the family thought about creating a suspended net using marine-style netting with prop poles.

“The blueberries were already there, so we had to work around them,” Chris explains. “When the wind blew, the netting moved, so it was a real learning curve.

We hand-sewed the whole thing together and strained it up with the wires on either side. It has a wire underneath and over, so we raised it to the height where we sewed it. In 2000 we had a tornado, which blew through the shed and lifted the skylights, which landed and slashed the netting, so everything came down. But we recovered from that.”
Fortunately, the blueberries are not troubled by many pest or disease problems. The plants receive a slow-release balanced fertiliser so as not to upset the pH of the soil or have so much green growth that it overwhelms the fruit production. They are then sprayed with Seasol and white oil to take care of any scale.

When pruning, Chris says it’s important not take off next year’s fruiting branches. “Given the moisture that we’ve had this season, we’ve got some fantastic new stems from the hard rootball. They don’t sucker, so we know the plant is happy. We try to hand-weed as much as we can, plus the mulch also helps.”

There is high demand for the PYO crop and some of the local restaurants feature the fruit on their menus, while some is used to value-add with preserves, including jams, chutneys and sauces, which are sold through the on-site café that was established in 2009.

“We are aiming at the family market,” says Chris. “Kids love to pick the berries, so we are family friendly. People like to stay on, so we feature blueberries on the light menu in salads, sauce for icecream, muffins and cakes. As we have about a hundred lemon trees on the property, too, we utilise those in the menu — blueberries and lemons have a natural affinity.

“This year we also planted one row of strawberries to try them out, so if it goes well we might extend that next year. We like to support other local products in the café, including honey and olive oil, and we also feature artwork from local artists in the café.

“Nutritionally, blueberries contain more antioxidants than any other fruit or vegetable, are a good source of vitamins A and C plus trace minerals, are low in calories and need no peeling, coring or seeding,” says Chris. “Ironically, Time magazine came out in 2000, the year Mum died, stating that blueberries were the best fruit you could eat and since then it’s been so much easier to sell them.”

TuckerBerry Hill
PYO Blueberries 35 Becks Rd Drysdale
phone 5251 3468

Article published with the permission of Universal Magazines Complete Home

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