Daughter of Irish Eyes Garden Seeds founder blazes new trail in horticulture

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DAILY RECORD – KARL HOLAPPA – The family behind Irish Eyes Garden Seeds is embarking on a (relatively) new venture that aims to keep the agricultural roots of the family going for generations to come.

Alexa Blanken, daughter of Irish Eyes founder Greg Lutovsky, is in her first season of salvaging heirloom blueberry plants for resale. She currently has approximately 50 of the heirloom plants on her property, the oldest examples being planted in 1942. She began the season with approximately 150 and hopes to bring in approximately 700 next year.

“We’ve had a great response from people,” she said. “Next year I’ll have a lot more plants here.”

The logistics of transplanting such old specimens are labor-intensive. The plants must be dug out of the ground in the fall, transported over to the property in Robinson Canyon and taken care of through the winter. The plants are initially stored on pallets, but Blanken said they eventually need to be planted in the ground if they haven’t sold by a certain date.

“They’re dormant throughout the wintertime,” she said. “That’s we dig them in the fall or winter, so we’re not harming them. Once it hits warmer weather, we definitely have to get them back in the ground.”

Blanken is supplementing her supply with a range of plant sizes, with some being in the 30-year old range and even juvenile plants.

“That way I can go to nurseries and sell them wholesale as well,” she said.

BLUEBERRY INSPIRATION

Blanken was inspired to get into the business when her father began salvaging heirloom blueberry plants on the West Side approximately 20 years ago. She said he had met a farmer who was liquidating their blueberry plants as it devalues the land for development.

“They would normally bulldoze them in and burn them,” she said. “He decided to start saving them. He moved over I think like 14,000 plants in like a year.”

Her father moved on from the venture when he ran out of plants but remained interested in the concept. Blanken said he met a farmer who was looking to get rid of their heirloom plants because they were too large to manage.

“He just wanted to get rid of these plants because they’re too big right now for his machine to fit through,” she said. “He wants to plant new varieties and keep going.”

For the buyers who have the space and money for large heirloom blueberry bushes, the rewards can be worth it. Blanken estimates each plant produces approximately 15 pounds of blueberries per season.

“We’re getting the consumer something they don’t have to wait 10 years for their one-gallon to start producing,” she said. “It’s instant blueberries.”

Another benefit of bringing the northern highbush plants over to Central Washington is that they are much hardier than the lowbush varietals that are successful on the West Side. Blanken said they are a perfect fit for the region.

“They’re cold-hardy,” she said.

Blanken was inspired to take over the venture as a way to branch off from the normal business proceedings at Irish Eyes. This fall, she intends on working with the same farmer on the West Side to bring over plants for the next season. She also will focus on trying to adjust to some of the challenges that are involved in the venture.

One challenge Blanken said they have encountered is with irrigation.

“Finding out that our well water is actually pretty basic in its acidity,” she said. “Blueberries like a more acidic water and soil, so we’ve had to redo our watering. Our irrigation water is actually really good for blueberries. They do need a lot of care.”

Transport is another challenge. Blanken and her father do all the digging and hauling of the plants, some of which weigh up to 800 pounds.

“They’re definitely hard to move around,” she said. “I myself drive the big truck and trailer, so that’s been a learning curve for me. I did grow up doing that, but it’s more so now that I have to do it. It’s definitely all your weekends in the winter and fall.”

READY TO PRODUCE

Blanken said she has found a lot of her customers to be retirees in the Upper County who don’t want to wait for a mature plant to develop and produce.

“They want to buy a mature bush that will instantly give them produce,” she said. “The older generation is also looking for those heirloom varieties as well. It seems to be more important to them.”

Blanken is keeping advertising limited and local, with some signage in Upper County and a presence at the farmers markets. She loaded one of heirloom plants onto their flatbed truck to display it at the first farmers market but has no plans of repeating that.

“I don’t want to take it again,” she said. “Moving it back and forth kind of damages the plant.”

Prices for the heirloom plants range from $150 to $400. Blanken offers free planting on orders of four or more plants, as well as guidance on where and how to transplant the specimens. She said the plants are graded like Christmas trees for sale, with the base and height being taken into account when pricing them.

Blanken plans to work with some of the existing wholesale channels established through Irish Eyes to set up a network for the blueberries, but that’s a goal for the future.

“I haven’t figured out my wholesale pricing and program quite yet,” she said. “I’m still working on it.”

Having grown up in agriculture, Blanken said the decision to work with blueberries was a natural fit, taking the skills she gained from her upbringing and applying them to a new, yet similar field.

“It’s definitely benefited me,” she said. “I’ve been working in the greenhouse for a few years, and that’s definitely helped me with my plant knowledge. It’s helped me a ton to prepare me for this. I’ve been doing this all my life, so it’s kind of like going into a new phase.”

Posted by: KARL HOLAPPA staff writer, Daily Record, June 29, 2019

Picture: KARL HOLAPPA, Daily Record

Blueberry plants are being cred for at Alexa Blanken’s property in Robinson Canyon. She hopes to bring in approximately 750 plants for next season.