Anne K Moore Photographs courtesy of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council
Blueberries are versatile. They fit into almost any garden as long as you have a sunny, well-drained spot and can manipulate the soil to get the acid soil that they prefer, between 4 and 5 pH. It takes two different varieties to grow a crop. If you meet these minimum requirements, you can harvest a blueberry crop year after year.
You can grow blueberries in single pots, arranged side by side or in groupings. Or, you can either grow them in the ground in a fruit and vegetable area or grow them as ornamentals or hedges, or mix them into a foundation planting. If you use them near your house, keep them several feet away from the foundation. Concrete from the foundation could leach calcium and raise the pH of the soil.
As long as blueberry bushes are within 100 feet of each other, cross-pollination should take place. They can be spaced as close as 2 1/2 feet apart to make a solid hedgerow. Make sure you do not use insecticides on your blueberry bushes, especially when they are blossoming and pollinators are flying. Blueberries have very few insect or disease problems.
Prepare the planting bed or containers several weeks before you purchase your blueberry bushes. You can have the soil tested for growing blueberries at your local University Extension Service. The results will tell you how much you will need to lower the pH of your soil.
You can use aluminum sulfate to lower the pH of the soil but it is best not to guess. Be sure to follow all label directions. It needs to be mixed with the soil. If you apply it before a rain, you won't need to water the area. Be sure to dig it in and wet down the soil in order to get it working.
To keep your soil acidified, use any fertilizer for rhododendrons or azaleas to fertilize your plants. If you want to grow organically, use cottonseed meal.
According to the Highbush Blueberry Council, prepare your soil using baled peat moss: “Remove 1/3 to 1/2 of the soil. Add an equal amount of pre-moistened peat moss and mix well. One 4 cubic foot compressed bale will usually be sufficient for 4-5 plants, for raised beds mix equal volumes peat moss with acid compost or planting mix.”
The council also suggests planting the bushes a bit high with the top of the root ball 1 to 2 inches aboveground. Mound the soil and peat mix over the top and in around the roots. Water the bushes very well in order to remove any air pockets that might be left around the roots. The soil needs to be well drained since these bushes do not like the roots kept wet. On the other hand, they need to be watered, and not allowed to totally dry out.
Add a 2 to 4 inch layer of mulch over the roots to help conserve moisture. Use acid organic mulches like bark, compost, sawdust, or grass clippings. When using organic mulches that break down, they can rob nitrogen from the soil. Be sure to keep your berry bushes well fed throughout the growing season with your fertilizer of choice.
Unfortunately with blueberries, as with all small fruits, they should not be allowed to bear fruit their first year. You should remove fruit and blossoms the first year so that the Bushes grow strong.
There are 2 types of blueberries, high bush that are grown in cold climates, and lowbush or rabbit eye which are grown in warm climates. High bush blueberries require 36° or lower temperatures, sustained for at least 6 weeks.
Blueberries are one of the easiest fruits to freeze. Just pick them, don't rinse them, put them in a freezer bag or container, and put them in the freezer dry. When you're ready to add to a recipe or eat them, be sure to rinse them first.
Blueberries are good for you. Check out Chef Linda’s blueberry recipes here at GardenSmart.
By Ron Harrison, Ph.D., Entomologist and Orkin Technical Services Director
Photographs courtesy of Orkin
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