Blueberries and their cousins (huckleberries, cranberries, and lingonberries) belong to the genus Vaccinium and are native to North America and Eastern Asia. There are dozens of varieties including the tiny, wild berries grown mostly in Maine that are flavorful, but hard to pick and hard to come by if you can get them at all. More common, especially in home gardens, is the Northern highbush blueberry (V. corumbosum)that is grown across the northern US and Canada. Other varieties have been hybridized for cultivation in the south such as the Southern highbush and "rabbiteye" blueberry.
Either way, blueberries are an attractive shrub that provide year around interest. Many varieties have pretty, small umbel-shaped flower clusters in the spring, and berries and lush green foliage in the summer. In the autumn, deciduous varieties display a riot of colorful red and orange leaves. The handfuls of flavorful blueberries you pluck fresh in July for pancakes or cereal are the biggest bonus.
Blueberries aren't difficult to grow. They can make a pleasant living fence between neighbors, or be planted in rows or clusters anywhere in the yard. Highbush blueberries have an upright habit and grow to a height of about 6 feet and about 5–6 feet wide, which makes them easy to maintain and harvest.
For an interesting map showing the distribution of various types of blueberry, see the USDA page. This provides a good idea of where each type of blueberry or kin grows in different regions of the county.
Various species fare better in the climates to which they are adapted. When choosing a blueberry, check with your local nursery or county extension service for recommendations on the types that do best in your area. Nevertheless, don't hesitate to try a different species. You may find it does just fine.
Blueberries planted in acidic (pH 4.5–5.0), well-drained, loamy soil, amended and mulched with compost, and located in a sunny spot grow easily and well with little fuss. Regular, even watering keeps the plant healthy and vigorous.
If your soil is on the limey side, it needs to be amended to reduce the pH. In this case, prepare beds for your blueberries in the fall. Test the soil and add amendments as needed. Clay soils can be amended with peat and sand dug in to improve drainage. High pH soils (limey) may need extra sulphur to decrease pH. Once you've worked the beds, let them rest over the winter. Retest soil in the spring for pH and amend further if needed.
Peat moss, pine bark, and pine needles can be used to organically reduce pH. In areas where the soil pH is naturally high, it's necessary to continuously amend the soil to maintain the high acidity needed. (If you use peat moss when planting, make sure it's wet, otherwise it draws moisture away from the plant, which could suffer.) Some gardeners get fir sawdust and pile six inches or more around the base of their bushes to keep the soil acidic.
One of the compelling reasons for growing blueberries is the fruit. Blueberry plants are very productive; you can expect most if not all of the flowers turning into berries as long was they are adequately pollinated. Bees are the industrious source of this magical process, so facilitate their efforts by removing competing flowers like dandelions but provide nearby native plantings for wild bees to nest. Bumblebees and hived honeybees are also efficient pollinators. Pollination is also conducted by a variety of other insects, so it's important to NEVER use insecticides during bloom. (It's better to eschew insecticides entirely and find a biological solution instead.)
Blueberries are remarkably easy to grow and have few pests or diseases, but to get a big crop of large fruits, cross pollination between at least two varieties is necessary for many types. Many varieties are self-pollinating, so if space is limited you can plant just one bush and still have fruit.
Plant several varieties to cross pollinate and extend your blueberry season. Early varieties begin bearing in June, but with a little planning you can have fresh blueberries all summer.
Blueberries are so carefree that about the only problem is that the berries are very attractive to birds, some of whom are so greedy, they will scarcely leave any on the bush. To deter birds, use bird scare away ribbon. It's easy to use and doesn't hurt the birds, but deters them so you can eat the fruit yourself.
Berries are harvested over a 2–3 week window, when they are dark blue. They are easy to eat out of hand and may be the easiest fruit to prepare for freezing. Just stem, rinse, and pop into freezer bags.
Planting blueberry bushes is similar to planting most shrubs. As with many other plants, it's important NOT to plant too deeply. Blueberry roots are fairly shallow and do well in raised beds.
Space plants about five feet apart for Highbush varieties, six for rabbiteye varieties. If you are planting multiple rows, they should be spaced about 10 feet apart.
As soon as the soil can be worked in early spring, dig a hole no deeper than the root ball, but about twice as wide. Place plant in the hole and backfill with soil. Top with a 3 inch layer of mulch. Water well.
If you grow your plants organically, add fresh compost in the fall and again in the spring. Fertilize only if necessary, but be cautious and stingy about it. Do a soil test first and apply only as much fertilizer indicated. Check with the county extension or your nursery for the correct amount and type.
Some gardeners prune young plants back and remove flowers the first year, as they believe that this forces overall plant development that would otherwise be used on fruit production. Others leave them alone. Your mileage may vary.
As the plants become established, pruning is a matter of removing dead or diseased branches, branches that are crossing, as well as controlling the size and shape of the bush. Prune during the late winter when the plant is dormant. Later in the spring, thin blossoms to prevent overfruiting until branches are sufficiently strong to support the full weight of the fruit.
Other shrubs related to blueberries make equally nice landscape plants. They include lingonberries, evergreen and red huckleberries, and bilberries (aka whortleberries). All require high acid soil that is well-drained and kept evenly moist. However, some plants such as lingonberries do best in partial shade, avoiding hot afternoon sun. Evergreen huckleberries prefer shade and produce less well in sunnier spots. As such, it's ideal for foundation plantings on the north side of buildings and fences. Red huckleberries are most often found on the edges of forests and produce small, red, tart fruits that are excellent in jam and pie.
Regardless of variety, blueberries and their cousins all produce high-oxidant fruits that are healthy and delicious eating.
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