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Tales from a Plant Addict

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

Blueberries


Blueberries might seem like a topic more suited to the spring or summer, since that's when the tasty berries are in season. Their white flowers in the spring and blazing red fall color make an excellent addition to your landscape, whether you plan on harvesting their fruit or not.

Blueberries are also a very appropriate topic with Thanksgiving right around the corner. According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Native Americans introduced the Pilgrims at Plymouth to the blueberry in the winter of 1620. Given this fact, it is very likely that the blueberry was present at the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621. The only foods mentioned specifically in written accounts of the harvest feast now referred to as the first Thanksgiving were meats.

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.

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.

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.

I have experimented with growing several varieties of blueberries in a couple of locations in my landscape. They seemed to struggle in the first location I chose near our garage, so after about 4 years of waiting for growth and fruits that never materialized I moved the bushes out to another part of my yard, next to our vegetable garden. We amended the soil to lower the pH where we transplanted the bushes, and they have grown a bit better, and have even produced a few berries. If I did a better job keeping the birds away I bet we would harvest even more.

This past year I started an experiment to see if I could grow blueberries in a container. In theory at least it should be easier to control the soil pH which is crucial for producing fruit. Years ago, when I still lived in an apartment I inherited a 'Tophat' blueberry in a large pot when a friend moved away. It survived but never thrived on my shady patio. 'Tophat' blueberries have a mature height of only 20 inches so they are a great choice for containers.

I ordered a new 'Tophat' blueberry bush online this spring and was a little disappointed that what I received was only about 6 inches tall. I planted it in a 4 inch pot and it has grown quite well over the summer and should be ready for a larger pot next spring.

I also found a 'Sunshine Blue' blueberry at a local garden center that was nearly mature in size and even had a few berries on it. 'Sunshine Blue' grows to be about three feet tall at maturity, and is recommended for use in large containers. One limitation to keeping blueberries alive and well in a container is they are shallow rooted so they tend to dry out easily. Adding mulch at the base of the plants will help, but containers can dry out very quickly during hot summer weather.

I purchased a self-watering container designed for growing vegetables to use for my 'Sunshine Blue' blueberry. It has a reservoir in the bottom that helps keep the soil moist in between waterings, and I also used mulch on top of the soil. I wasn't sure if my idea would work, but I watched and eagerly waited to see if the tiny blueberries on my plant would mature and ripen.

The berries on the plant matured and ripened, and my toddler son thoroughly enjoyed helping me check the plant for ripe berries each day. The plant grew quite a bit over the summer, and is developing beautiful red fall color. As we get closer to winter, I will move the planter into my unheated but not freezing, attached garage. If this plant were in my landscape it would survive just fine in the ground over the winter, but planted in a pot the roots are vulnerable to freezing temperatures unless given some protection.

My plan is to water it occasionally over the winter and hopefully it will survive alongside several other plants I overwinter in pots in the same manner.

 

 



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