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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Blueberries


Whether you plan on harvesting their fruit or not, blueberry bushes are a star in the landscape. Their white flowers in the spring and blazing red fall color provide for multiple seasons of interest.

If you want to grow a truly American crop, grow blueberries. The only place they are found in the wild is in Eastern North America. Native Americans ate the fruits fresh and dried, but also used the rest of the plant in medicines. They also used the blueberry as a dye for cloth and baskets.

Blueberries are members of the genus Vacinnium, which includes over 450 different species. There are other fruit producing plants in this genus, with common names like bilberry, huckleberry, and lingonberry. The commonly known cranberry is also in Vacinnium genus.

The plants referred to and typically grown with the common name blueberry fall into three different categories: Lowbush, Highbush, and Rabbit Eye.

Lowbush blueberries are the 'wild' blueberries found in eastern North America. The plants are not very tall, typically only one or two feet tall. The fruits are also very small, but very sweet.

Highbush are, you guessed it, taller than the Lowbush blueberries. They can reach a height of ten to twelve feet. Their fruits are usually larger than the Lowbush.

Rabbit Eye blueberries are said to resemble a rabbit's eye. They are a species of blueberry native to the Southeastern U.S.

The state of Maine is the largest producer of blueberries in the world, churning out 25% of the total crop grown in all of North America. North American blueberry production typically starts in May in the south and continues through September with the help of cold storage.

In what seems to be a seasonless produce section in many grocery stores, blueberries can be found nearly year-round. This is primarily due to crops produced in the Southern hemisphere, where the seasons are opposite ours in the Northern hemisphere. Chile is both the biggest producer in the Southern hemisphere and the largest exporter to the Northern hemisphere. There the harvest begins in November and continues through March or April with cold storage supplying many U.S. grocery stores.

Plant breeders have selected plants over many generations to produce cultivars for both commercial and home growers. Plants which have been selected to grow to small or moderate size make great shrubs for the landscape, with tasty fruit as a bonus.

A favorite of mine is the cultivar 'Tophat', which only grows to about one foot tall, making it ideal for borders or even potted. I have grown this variety in my garden, but this year I am trying it in a container. There are a multitude of other cultivars suitable for the home garden, but a few I've grown are Patriot, Northland, Rubel, and Jersey. Plants will self-pollinate to some degree, but produce more with other cultivars planted nearby for cross-pollination.

My plants have never produced an abundant crop. They are nine years old. About five years ago I thought they were too crowded, and I moved them to a different location to give them more space. I also made an attempt to amend the soil to make it more acidic.

Acid soil is a must for healthy blueberry plants. Plan on testing the soil pH in the area you wish to plant blueberries. Contact your local Extension office for information on soil testing and amending soil to adjust pH. Blueberries need a pH of about 4.8- 5.2 to thrive. Yellowing blueberry leaves may be a sign your pH is too high.

Blueberries have shallow roots, so they dry out easily. Keeping an inch or two of mulch around the bushes will help keep them happy during our hot summer weather.

We lost a couple of our blueberry bushes thanks to the harsh winter. Given that they have never really produced any fruit for us, I am trying a couple of varieties in pots to see if they will perform better rather than replanting any blueberries in my garden. My thought is that I have a better chance of achieving the acidic conditions they need in a pot rather than in the ground-- at least in my yard.

The varieties I am growing in containers are 'Tophat' and 'Sunshine Blue'. The particular 'Tophat' plant I have is pretty small, so it is in a standard pot, and will hopefully grow significantly in size this summer. The 'Sunshine Blue' plant I have is fairly large, and actually has a few berries on it. I planted it in a self-watering container on my patio, and added mulch to the top of the soil to help conserve moisture.

I plan on overwintering the plants in my garage. Even though both varieties are hardy here, if the pots freeze over the winter the plants are not likely to survive. I am keeping my fingers crossed that this experiment in gardening is a success!



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