I contend that anyone who gardens and doesn’t plant blueberries is a fool. Yes, this is a harsh statement, but consider how easy blueberries are to grow. Insect and disease pests are insignificant; pruning needs are minimal. I grow all sorts of common and uncommon fruits, each suffering from the occasional vagaries of pests and our spring and summer weather, but blueberries are the one fruit that, over the last quarter century, have never failed me. Talk about food security!
Consider also the beauty of these bushes. Clusters of urn-shaped flowers unfold in spring, the leaves retain their healthy exuberance of spring all summer and then turn crimson in autumn, and the bare stems turn reddish in winter. The berries themselves present the best case for growing blueberries; they are delectable and provide health benefits ranging from protecting against cancer and heart attack to forestalling many of the effects of aging.
As delectable as you might now consider blueberries, don’t judge them until you’ve grown them yourself. The berries actually turn blue a few days before their peak of gustatory perfection. While farmers might pick their berries at that first blue stage, in your backyard you have the luxury of letting the delectable orbs hang for a few more days to develop the best flavor.
One key to success in growing blueberries is to pay attention to the soil. Although blueberries grow wild around here, the soil right in your backyard might not be exactly suitable—but it can usually be made so easily. Here’s my four-part soil prescription for success with blueberries. (This same soil prescription is also ideal for rhododendrons, azaleas, mountain laurels, and other blueberry kin.)
First, test the soil acidity. The acidity of many of our soils naturally suits blueberries, which need a pH of 4 to 5.5; where needed, acidity can be increased by adding sulfur, a naturally occurring mineral. I use pelletized sulfur because it’s not dusty, applying one to two pounds per hundred square feet (the sandier the soil, the less sulfur needed).
For the second part of my prescription, I mix a generous bucketful of acidic peat moss into the soil at each planting hole. Besides helping acidify the soil, peat moss provides a long-lasting supply of humus that is naturally poor in nutrients.
Third, right after planting, I apply a three-inch-deep mulch of some organic material such as autumn leaves, pine needles, or wood shavings.
And fourth, I water my plants regularly, at least when they are young. A good rule of thumb is to apply one gallon of water per plant each week, which is about equivalent to an inch of rainfall.
Maintenance of a blueberry planting is simple and begins with an annual sprinkling of some organic fertilizer. I use soybean meal (usually available as an animal feed) at the rate of one pound per hundred square feet. It’s cheap, it needs to be applied only once a year sometime between late fall and early spring, and it’s good for plants that like acidic soils as well as those that do not. I top the fertilizer each year with a new blanket of mulch, which not only replenishes what has broken down over the year, but also buries disease problems from dropped, diseased berries. After a few years of layer upon layer of mulch, the soil holds moisture so well that my blueberries require little or no watering.
Depending on the natural mineral makeup of the soil, additional sulfur may periodically be needed to maintain the correct soil acidity. Test acidity every few years and keep an eye out for signs of insufficient acidity, which is a yellowing of young leaves in the areas between the veins.
No pruning is necessary the first few years that blueberry bushes are in the ground. After that, make room for and stimulate the growth of young, fruiting wood by cutting to the ground any stems more than six years old. Also remove all but four healthy, new shoots at ground level, remove diseased or broken stems, and cut back drooping ones.
Besides getting the soil right, the other key to success with blueberries is dealing with birds. For the very best tasting berries, I net my planting against birds—they don’t wait for the berries to hang to perfect flavor. I’ve enclosed my blueberry planting in a walk in “blueberry temple.” Locust posts support permanent netting on the sides. When berries begin ripening towards the end of June, I cover the top with netting, removing it after the last of the berries are harvested in September.
A number of different varieties allow me to spread out the season. When I go out to harvest, I distinguish the just-blue blueberries from the dead-ripe, blue blueberries by tickling the clusters; only the latter drop off easily into my hands. Many of those berries go right into my mouth, but a number—seventy quarts’ worth—make it to the freezer so that the berries can be enjoyed year ‘round.
Lee Reich, PhD is a garden and orchard consultant; he also hosts workshops at his New Paltz farmden (inquire at leereich.com/workshops). He details how to grow blueberries—and other fruits—in his book Grow Fruit Naturally.