We have had a bumper crop of blueberries this year, probably due to our overabundance of rainfall. I really didn’t appreciate blueberries when I was growing up. Not sure why I didn’t care for them, maybe they just weren’t ripe enough when I tried them. I still dislike getting a sour berry that didn’t stay on the bush long enough. I did learn to value them when we moved to northwestern Michigan, a huge blueberry growing area.
Blueberries are an easy crop in the home garden if you give them the extreme conditions they prefer. First and foremost, after sunshine, is a very acid soil. They prefer a pH of 4.0-5.0. Not much else will grow in this acidity.
If your soil isn’t acid enough, you can still have blueberries by working peat moss, composted pine needles, or oak leaves into the soil before you plant. You can also use agricultural sulphur according to label directions. After you plant the bushes, use acid-producing organic mulches such as pine, oak, or hemlock leaves/needles at least 2 inches thick. Also, use a fertilizer formulated for acid plants.
You can prune blueberry bushes into ornamental shapes so they will even fit into a street-side garden. They have little bell-shaped blossoms in the spring, which turn into plump berries, first a kind of pinky-blue and then the deep ripe blue we admire. You will know when the berries are ripe because they will easily spill into your hand when you gently tug on the clusters.
If you don’t wish to share with the birds in your garden, you will have to cover the bushes with bird netting, available at most garden centers or online.
Northern gardeners can grow the low-bush varieties that withstand the cold and snowy winters. If you live in a warmer climate, you’ll want to seek out the Southern Highbush and Rabbiteye blueberries, which tolerate heat and humidity. Some of the newer varieties don’t require a pollinator to produce fruit but you will have a larger crop if you plant two different cultivars. Be sure to purchase two that bloom at the same time. And, be sure to leave the unripe berries to mature and sweeten. You wouldn’t want to wait as long as I did to appreciate this pleasing fruit.
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By Ron Harrison, Ph.D., Entomologist and Orkin Technical Services Director
Photographs courtesy of Orkin
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