STARTING RIGHT WITH BLUEBERRIES

from The Happy Gardens Gazette – spring, 2011

www.sandpointflowerfarm.com

 

Blueberries are among the most nutritious fruits you can eat.  High in anti-oxidants these little gems are easy to grow in the home garden.  If that isn’t enough, Blueberry bushes are attractive additions to the home landscape.  Although easy to grow and relatively pest free, you will be most successful if you make the effort to start out with some careful preparation.

 

First, consider what type of Blueberry you want to grow.  In North Idaho you have the choice of 3 types: Northern Highbush, Lowbush (AKA wild Blueberry) and the Halfhigh.  The Northern Highbush is the most widely grown in the northern U.S. and southern Canada. These grow to be about 4-6’ tall, depending on variety and growing conditions.  The Lowbush is the most cold hardy and forms a nice mounding plant 1-2’ tall.  The Halfhighs are hybrids between the two and generally grow to 3-4’, some varieties a little shorter.  I prefer the Northern Highbush for its high yield, ease of harvest and landscape value.

 

Next, consider varieties.  The best production is achieved by having a minimum of 2 varieties with overlapping bloom times to ensure good cross-pollination.   Consider choosing varieties with different harvest windows to lengthen your fresh berry season, while ensuring that the bloom times overlap. For example, you could plant an early variety with a mid-season variety or a mid-season with a late variety. Enjoy berries all summer by planting very early, early, mid-season, late and very late varieties.  6 to 8 Highbush Blueberry plants should provide a family of 4 with all the fresh berries they can eat plus plenty for preserves, pies and sharing.

 

Choose a site with 6 hours or more of direct sun exposure.  Blueberries will grow with less sun but expect lower yields.  A site protected from high winds is also advisable. Your blueberry patch should be located with easy access to water and preferably where you can enjoy their beauty.

 

Blueberries prefer a soil with high levels of organic matter and a very low (4-5) pH.  A soil with good moisture retention and good drainage is essential.  Careful soil preparation will pay years of dividends.  I suggest “double digging” your Blueberry bed and adding lots of sphagnum peat moss.  Sphagnum peat has a very low pH and excellent moisture retentive characteristics – perfect for Blueberry culture. I start by digging a trench about 2-3’ wide and spade depth (8-10”), the length of the row, setting the excavated soil aside for the moment. The soil in the trench is then loosened to spade depth. Put 3-4” of moistened peat moss in the trench, mixing it with the loosened soil. Next, layer the excavated soil that you set aside earlier, using a 3” layer of soil alternated with 1” of peat moss. Once you’ve used all of the soil that you removed from the trench, mix the layers together using a spading fork or shovel then rake it smooth, mounding it in the center of the row.  This should leave you with a nice raised bed, high in organic matter and with a pH at least close to your target range.  If you are planting multiple rows space them about 6-8’ apart.  Before you plant, it would be beneficial to have your soil mix tested for pH. Further pH adjustment if needed, can be made with elemental Sulfur.

 

Set your Northern Highbush Blueberry plants 4-5’ apart within the rows.  Dig your planting holes a couple of inches deeper than the root ball is high. After setting your plants in the holes, backfill ˝ full with your soil mixture then fill the hole with water. After the water drains, fill the holes to grade and apply water once again.  Apply a 3” layer of mulch.  Partially rotted pine needles or sawdust work well.

 

Remove any flower buds for the first year or two so that the plant will direct its energy into root and shoot growth. Water well, daily for the first couple of weeks then water weekly.  3 weeks after planting, apply 2 ounces of fertilizer around each plant. A Rhododendron-Azalea type fertilizer works great.

 

Sounds like a lot of work but the rewards are bountiful and will come for years and years!  Watch for tips on caring for your Blueberry plants in a future issue of The Happy Gardens Gazette.