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Out on the Cannon Bridge Road
There’re things about South Carolina that I imagine you don’t experience in other states. Like a visit to Cannon Bridge Road near the Edisto River over in Orangeburg which was prompted by a desire to get fresh strawberries and blueberries grown by Monty Rast. Team MIG visited Longview Farms over in Calhoun County recently to see the unique blueberry operation the Rast family has established. Hundreds of blueberry plants are growing in 25 gallon plants. This is a family fond of 25 gallon containers; Mr. Rast’s late father filled them with cotton gin trash and grew Jerusalem artichokes that hardly needed washing before being turned into relish.
Since blueberries are indigenous to South Carolina and are about the easiest backyard fruit to grow, I wondered why in the world someone would go to the trouble to fill all those pots with pine bark medium, set them out on landscape cloth, and outfit each one with drip irrigation.
Well, it turns out these aren’t your everyday blueberries. Clemson recommends that we grow rabbiteye blueberries and plant several different varieties for good fertilization. They prefer acid soils and are relatively pest free (deer and young children and birds can be a problem). Rather than the rabbiteyes, Monty Rast has elected to grow an earlier maturing selection that is even picker about a very acidic soil. His southern highbush blueberries ripen a month before the rabbiteyes, a good marketing strategy but one that runs the risk of a late frost. Although mostly self-fertile, the southern highbush plants set bigger and sweeter fruits when several varieties are planted in the field and pollinators are busy working the flowers.
Blueberries are in the heath family which typically has urn-shaped flowers; the pollinators who visit them need a long tongue to get to the bottom of those structures. The southern blueberry bumblebee, a solitary, ground-nesting individual, is the insect best suited to sip that nectar and at the same time transfer pollen from the male to female flowers. Regular old hairy-bottomed bumblebees also do a pretty good job, and in large commercial operations, hives of our beloved, but imported, European honeybee are often brought into fields to get the best fruit set possible.
Interesting, those exalted and glorified honeybees fall under the influence of carpenter bees, whose hairless bottoms made them less effective at spreading pollen around and whose table manners are deplorable. With their short tongues, yet strong jaws (carpenter bees lay eggs in tunnels they excavate in unpainted wood), they can’t reach the bottom of Pooh Bear’s honeypot-like blueberry flower, so they just cut a hole in the side of the blossom and sip the nectar, bypassing the nice, orderly lunch-room system that Mother Nature has devised. Those European honeybees, perhaps because they are removed from the steel-eyed scrutiny of Italian grandmothers or English nannies, will take this easy route over the traditional method once the carpenter bees cut the fence.
Fortunately, our southern blueberry bumblebee and the various other bumblebees species who help pollinate stay on course and the blueberry plants they cluster around set large, sweet, and plentiful
As to the South Carolina aspect of the story, I figured Cannon Bridge Road had significance in the Revolutionary War, as almost every mile of our state roads has historical markers reminding us of battles fought long ago. Instead, with a little research, I found that in 1791, Robert Cannon, an entrepreneur, requested that the powers that be allow him to charge a toll for those who used his bridge to cross the mysterious, black waters of the Edisto River. Many South Carolinians of today continue his entrepreneurial spirit, using their talents and land to produce the freshest and finest vegetables and fruits possible. If you search “Certified South Carolina Grown,” you’ll find the SC Department of Agriculture website that lets you find out where in your county specific vegetables and fruits are available. Support local growers; I can just about guarantee you won’t have to pay a toll to reach their roadside markets.