Growing Blueberries

Blueberries, of the genus Vaccinium with about 300 species worldwide, are one of the most successful plants on the planet. Most species grow in bands from the 38th parallels north and south of the equator almost to the polar regions, covering many millions of acres. So why shouldn’t a few specimens grow in your garden?

All it takes is an acid soil rich in organic matter, a sunny spot, and one or two inches of water a week during the growing season. In return, you get:

  • Delicious fruit in midsummer that can be eaten out of hand; makes superb pies, muffins, tarts, and pancakes; tops your breakfast cereal, and freezes perfectly, without clumping, because of the waxy bloom on its skins.
  • Major health benefits from antioxidants, fiber, and ellagic acid, which research suggests may slow the growth of cancer cells, help eliminate plaque from arteries, and prevent mutations in genetic material.
  • Well-behaved shrubs—although they need their own spot so the soil can be made right for them. Highbush blueberries and their cultivars (selections of V. corymbosum) grow about five to seven feet tall. Lowbush blueberries (V. angustifolium) reach only to 18 to 24 inches. Hybrids of these two species grow about three to four feet. They produce the best and most fruit when more than one cultivar is planted for cross-pollination.
  • A tapestry of fall color. Blueberry leaves change from green to burgundy, purple, red, and yellowish-orange as the autumn comes on.
  • Pest and disease-free, long-lived plants that need only an annual, dormant season pruning to cut out wood older than six years and a reapplication of mulch.

Blueberries are particular about their soil. They like a pH of from 4.0 to 4.5, which can be achieved with pelletized sulfur (available at garden centers) applied according to the package directions. The planting hole should contain about one third peat moss, one third topsoil (amended for pH if necessary), and one third sand. The plants are shallow rooted and don’t like competition from weeds, so mulch under and around the blueberries with newspapers covered with peat moss. Decayed pine needle duff also makes ideal mulch. But be sparing with fertilizers.

Some recommended varieties of highbush blueberry are Blueray, Birgitta, Chandler, Northland, Patriot, Sierra, Spartan and the species. Not only are the species native to the eastern U.S., but they produce smaller, more intensely flavored berries. A good lowbush blueberry is Brunswick.

If you let the blueberries ripen on the bushes for a few days after they turn blue, you’ll be surprised by the rich flavor they show compared to store-bought berries. Just reach into the clusters of fruit and wiggle your fingers. Truly ripe berries will fall into your upturned hand.

Here’s a word of caution: you’ll have to beat the birds to the berries. As soon as they turn blue, the birds will get after them and you’ll be lucky to get any at all. The answer is bird netting thrown over the bushes and pinned to the ground. If you don’t pin the netting, birds will get under it and decimate your crop.

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