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For the love of blueberries!

Anyone who has spent any time at Marvelwood in the past 26 years knows that at the northern edge of campus, just above the playing fields, are rows and rows of blueberry bushes. Over the years, many students and faculty have toiled in those rows, maintaining and tending them. Each bush requires individual attention, and with over 900 of them, the work is endless. Blueberries are part of the genus Vaccinum – which includes cranberries, bilberries, and huckleberries – in the section Cyanoccoccus. The Marvelwood bushes are ‘cultivated’ or ‘highbush’, which means they are taller and the berries larger than their ‘wild’/ ‘lowbush cousins.’ They are ideal for picking.

But where did the bushes come from?

The bushes began their life on a pick-your-own blueberry farm, owned and operated by Ralph Henderson, a retired vice president of Reader’s Digest, according to a New York Times article by Susan Chira (9/13/83). In 1983, Mr. Henderson decided that he could no longer maintain the bushes, which he had planted in 1956 as a hobby. The farm was sold to Dr. Henry Kissenger and his wife, Nancy, who did not intend to maintain the orchard, which at that time contained over 4000 bushes. Blueberry picking enthusiasts were quite dismayed that the area’s largest blueberry orchard, which had been in operation for a quarter of a century, was going to be cleared. Mr. Henderson looked for alternatives to destroying the bushes, and Kent School came to the rescue!

Father Richard Schell was Headmaster of Kent School at the time:

When Ralph Henderson sold his property, he donated the blueberry bushes to Kent School which carried out the transplant to the campus on Skiff Mountain in October, 1983. Dr. Phil Marucci, after whom the Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research at Rutgers is named, and Rosedale Nurseries of Westchester, provided the technical assistance and Kent students, faculty, and staff provided the labor. Members of the Kent Volunteer Fire Department watered the newly-transplanted bushes. The School froze the berries and used them in its dining hall all year. Off and on over the years, local residents have been able to pick their own blueberries.

When the bushes were moved to Skiff Mountain, the campus was, at that time, home to Kent School’s girls. The boys lived down the mountain on the main campus and students were transported up and down the mountain for classes and various activities. A few years later, the school moved the girls onto the main campus. In 1995, Marvelwood moved to the Skiff Mountain campus. For its first 39 years, Marvelwood was located in the nearby Village of Cornwall at the top of the stunning Coltsfoot Valley, where students were housed in converted homes around the village and the dining hall was a converted barn. In making the move, the school gained more space for a growing student populations and better facilities. In Cornwall, the lack of a gymnasium meant lots of travel for practices and games for basketball teams! Another important addition to the School was the blueberry bushes. With our well-established weekly community service program, we were quickly able to step into the role of caretaker and manager.

Marvelwood has always been proud to share the berries with our friends and neighbors. Picking the big, beautiful berries is a summer tradition for many of us! Even during the summer of 2020, when COVID was ravaging and the world was isolating, the public was invited to pick. Despite the campus being closed to visitors, the decision was made that it was important to give people the opportunity–with guidelines– to enjoy this perennial outdoor activity.

Over the years, weather conditions and other factors have impacted the crop. The weeds and grasses that grow up and around each bush have, from time to time, seemed to grow faster than they could be cut back. As is the case with so much, it’s the dedication of a few good people that can make the difference. Math Department Chair Heni Foote took over managing the blueberry crew a few years ago; she and her weekly community service group work extremely hard in the bushes throughout the year. Mrs. Foote also initiated an annual spring clean up, inviting community members and avid pickers to assist in the never-ending maintenance.

While our blueberry crew has put an extraordinary amount of effort and care into the bushes, more and more are dying each year. According to various sources, including the University of Maine, the lifespan of a blueberry bush is 50 year, which puts the Marvelwood bushes well past their prime. Along with the care and dedication of our faculty and students, the soil and other conditions on Skiff Mountain have certainly contributed to their longevity.

We value having the blueberries on campus and are looking at ways to renew this incredible natural resource. To help support our efforts, please consider making a donation directly to Marvelwood's Blueberry Orchard.

  • A donation of $50 could help purchase, replace or maintain a blueberry bush.
  • A gift of $100 could help maintain a large section of our blueberry orchard.
  • A gift of $500 could offset arborists to evaluate and prune the entire orchard.

Written for Marvelwood By: Caitlin C. Lynch P'13