Text by Brian Barth for the January/February 2015 issue of Horticulture
Since edibles aren’t typically bred for their ornamental characteristics, it can take a lot of creativity and time-consuming maintenance to coax an aesthetically graceful garden out of an ordinary food plot. Keeping your apple trees perfectly pruned each year and your tomatoes tied up and free of blight is easier said than done. But blueberries — once you get them off to a good start — are trouble-free and reliable. They have the same simple oval leaves and tidy growth habit as many of the shrubs that we commonly employ as hedging, and they emerge from winter each year adorned with delicate, honey-scented blossoms that look like tiny upside-down porcelain urns.
Whether you’re looking for a foundation plant or something to soften a fence line, as long as there is at least 5 or 6 hours of direct sun, blueberries allow you to have your hedge and eat it too. There is work involved in the equation, but it’s mostly at the outset, starting with variety selection. Though all blueberries qualify as ornamentals, it’s worth noting that there are several varieties that have been selected specifically for their good looks: for example, Blue Suede with its fiery fall foliage, the dwarf evergreen Peach Sorbet and the colorful ‘Pink Lemonade’.
Some blueberries are listed as self-fertile, but keep in mind that most are more productive with cross-pollination from a second variety. For a uniform-looking hedge, interplant two or more cultivars with a similar growth habit in an alternating pattern.
How to Plant Blueberries
Blueberries are vulnerable to numerous pests and diseases, which can cause a blueberry hedge to be neither edible or ornamental. Fortunately, there is no rocket science involved in keeping them healthy, though extensive soil preparation at planting time is generally required. My caveat about blueberries being low maintenance only if given a good start comes into play here. Unless you have a moist, rich, acidic, well-drained sandy loam, blueberries are not the type of shrub that allows you to just dig a hole slightly larger than the root ball and pop it in the ground. Because blueberries have extensive lateral root systems that are shallow and fibrous in nature, it’s best to prep the entire planting area as one big bed.
Till up a strip four to eight feet wide (depending on the mature size of the variety), aiming for a depth of at least 6 inches, and shape the soil into a low, broad mound if drainage is poor. Blueberries like soil that is extremely high in organic matter, so plan to incorporate a three-inch layer of compost or soil conditioner over the entire planting area. They also like it acidic. Measure the pH in advance and spread two pounds of elemental sulfur per hundred square feet of planting area for every point over five on the pH scale and till this into the bed along with the compost. And for the grand finale: spread six inches — yes, that’s right, six inches — of mulch over the planting area. That may seem crazy, but cool, moist, highly organic soil is what makes blueberries thrive. Besides, six inches of fresh mulch will become three inches within a year. Pine straw is an excellent mulch for blueberries, but if that’s not available wood chips will do.
If you can manage all that, you’re likely to be rich in blueberries for the rest of your life. If you just pop them in the ground and then try to nurse them with fertilizers, acidifying agents and pesticides once they’ve begun to show signs of distress, you may as well just start over. Blueberries are very picky about soil and it’s hard to bring them back once they’ve gone downhill.
As time goes on, there is one optional chore, which is to prune out the older growth to renew the younger, more fruitful wood. Do this in the winter and be sure to make your cuts flush to the base of each branch you remove. It’s fine to let them stay dense, however, and you can even shear them into a formal hedge, though fruit production will be substantially reduced. You can count on birds taking 50 percent of the harvest and most strategies to exclude them will make your elegant hedge look like and eyesore — so instead plant twice what you need and call it an incredible, edible wildlife hedge.
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