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The Homeowners Column
Beautiful, Bountiful Blueberries
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Gardening includes disappointment and jubilation. Luckily these emotions occur in the same year or we would probably all give up growing anything. Last year I was overwhelmed with apples. This year in my yard it's the year of the blueberry and the apples are taking a back seat.
I have heard some say you can't grow respectable blueberries in Illinois. In some areas of Illinois the alkaline soils and winter cold make it difficult. However here in central Illinois it can be done but it takes a little effort. Blueberries do require special soil preparation and a little more care, but once they get going, get out the pie recipes.
Here are some suggestions if you are really serious about growing blueberries. It's best to prepare the planting area a year or so before the spring planting to give the soil acidifiers time to work. Blueberries require a soil pH of 4.8 to 5.2 with high organic matter. Get a soil test to determine the pH. From there the amount of sulfur to add to the soil to lower the pH can be determined.
Regular fertilizing each year with ammonium sulfate will keep the soil pH acidic. Do not use aluminum sulfate on blueberries.
Adding acidic peat moss or compost to the planting hole will also help the blueberries to grow successfully. If the soil is not acidic enough, the blueberry leaves will turn yellow between the veins and not grow well.
Blueberries are shallow rooted. They need plenty of water during the growing season especially as the berries are developing. Supplemental irrigation is often needed. An inch of water a week is adequate. Blueberries hate poorly drained areas so don't over water. A mulch of pine needles or wood chips will help to retain moisture and reduce soil temperatures.
Blueberries produce best in sun but do well even when shaded part of the day. I think mine appreciate shade from the hot afternoon sun.
Some blueberry cultivars good for Illinois listed from earliest ripening to latest include: Collins, Patriot, Bluejay, Bluecrop, Herbert, Nelson and Elliott. Blueberries do not require cross-pollination to produce fruit but planting several plants will usually increase yield.
Rabbits and birds will be your biggest pests. Cage blueberries to keep the rabbits away. While the berries are ripening, bird netting held above the plants is a necessity.
If this sounds like way too much trouble, check out a local pick-your-own farm listed in the newspaper classifieds or http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/fresh/
Here are some tips to harvesting blueberries. A fully ripe blueberry will be uniform in color and should easily come loose from the plant. If it takes any appreciable pressure to pick them, the berries aren't fully ripe and sweet. Furthermore, a reddish ring around the "scar" (indentation where the fruit is attached to the stem) also indicates that the berry is not ripe.
It is best to pick blueberries by gently rolling each one from the cluster with the thumb into the palm of the hand. When picking is done this way, the berries that aren't ripe will not come loose.
After harvesting, cool blueberries as quickly as possible to about 35°F. Harvest at weekly intervals.
Check out Small Fruits in the Home Garden, a publication from University of Illinois Extension. It contains info on growing strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, currants, gooseberries and grapes. At only $5 it is quite a bargain. Check your local U of I Extension office or call 800-345-6087.
U of I Extension Macon County Master Gardeners Garden Walk in Decatur on Sunday, June 23 from 11 a.m. -4 p.m. Call 217-877-6042 for details. The Garden Path and Farmers Market will have tickets on walk day.
U of I Extension Vermilion County Master Gardeners Garden Walk in Danville on Sunday, June 23 from 12-5 p.m. Call 217-442-8615 for details.