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February 2009

An Old-Fashioned Classic: Blueberries
By The Growing Gardener

The Growing Gardener archive

Last fall, walking through the swath of brilliant red foliage at the Mercer Slough Blueberry Farm (in Bellevue, Wash.), I was charmed by the sight of so many, presumably old, blueberry bushes—rows and rows of them. As a young girl I remember picking the delicious blueberries in the same field with my Girl Scout troop. I wonder if they are indeed the same bushes I picked from back then . . . they could be because a well-tended blueberry bush can live 75 years or more.

blueberry bushes
Fall foliage on the Mercer Slough Blueberry Farm
photo by Gina Lozier

If you want to grow this old-fashioned classic, the newer hybrids and self-pollinating cultivars are adapted for the home gardener. Blueberries are desirable for their four-season landscape interest: Fall provides brilliantly colored foliage, red stems offer winter interest, flowers bloom in the spring, and sweet, nutritious blue fruit arrives in the summer. And, if you want to save money, now is the time to buy plants bareroot from your local garden center. Bareroot plants that don't sell now are potted up and given a considerably higher price tag later on.

The biggest trick with blueberries is they need a soil pH of 4.0 to 5.0. If you live east of the Cascades, where the soil is more alkaline, consider growing blueberry bushes in containers with amended acidic soil and conditions you can control. However, you can't control the length of the growing season, and blueberry bushes like a longer growing season (140 days) for the best fruit production. Those of you in alkaline country may have only two- or three-season landscape interest.

Some other things to consider before you plant a mini–blueberry farm:

  • Most cultivars like full sun and can take some partial shade.
  • They like acidic, well-drained soil (similar to rhododendrons and azaleas).
  • Most cultivars don't like dry soil.
  • Plant enough so you can share with the birds. Birds love blueberries.
  • Plant different cultivars nearby for a better crop (even with self-pollinating plants you might have a better crop).
  • Consider planting cultivars that ripen at different intervals for a longer fruiting season.
  • Encourage new cane growth by pruning the old canes.
  • Prevent mummy berry fungus (shriveled berries) by removing the dead spurs and cleaning out the leaves from under the shrub.
  • In ideal planting conditions, new bareroot plants will take three to four years before producing fruit. (Good things come to those who wait.)
  • The following quick reference provides some information about a few cultivars that are available in the Pacific Northwest.

    Blueberry cultivars

    Blueberry

    Ripen Time/Fruit

    Size/Habit

    Soil

    Fall Color

    Pollination/Other

    Vaccinium 'Sunshine Blue'

    Long fruiting season ranges from July–August

    Compact, round shape; 3–4 feet

    Acidic, fertile, well-drained, humus-rich

    Red—half its leaves stay on through the winter

    Self-pollinating

    Vaccinium 'North Country'

    Early; smaller fruit size

    Upright, low, spreading; 3–4 feet

    Acidic, medium to wet, well-drained

    Bright red colors

    Needs another blueberry for pollination; cold hardy

    Vaccinium 'Duke'

    Early; heavy, consistent producer of large berries; blooms late and ripens early

    6–7 feet

    Acidic, medium to wet, well-drained

    Violet, orange, and yellow

    Self-pollinating

    Vaccinium 'Bluejay'

    Early mid-season; resistant to mummy berry disease

    Vigorous grower can grow twice as fast as most other blueberries; 6–7 feet

    Acidic, well-drained

    Yellow-orange fall color

    Self-pollinating; drought resistant; hardy

    Vaccinium 'Chippewa'

    Mid-season; excellent sweet flavor; berries very light blue color

    Upright, vase; 4 feet

    Acidic, well-drained

    Orange, red

    Self-pollinating

    I hope I have sparked some enthusiasm for growing bareroot blueberry plants in your garden, but talk to a professional at your local garden center to discuss the best way to grow blueberries for your climate and soil.

    blueberries
    Photo courtesy of Microsoft Office Online Clip Art

     

    Resources

    Bellevue Blueberry Farms

    Big Dipper Farm - blueberry chart

    Growing Small Fruits for the Home Garden: Blueberries

     

    The Growing Gardener is Gina Renee Lozier, an enthusiastic student of horticulture and overall nature lover.

     

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