by Susan Ward
Blueberries can be a tasty and attractive addition to the suburban garden. In the fall, blueberry bushes flame into scarlet, adding brilliant colour to what can be a dull season. And in the summer, who can resist the mouthwatering sight of blueberry bushes covered in dusky blue fruit? Aaaah, the fruit... those bursts of sweetness exploding on your tongue... One of my fondest childhood memories is of picking blueberries at a u-pick berry farm with my family, popping as many blueberries into my mouth as I put into my pail. When I was a child, I thought eating blueberries was like eating sunshine.
You can have the same experience on a smaller scale. If you're a gardener who grows mainly flowers, you may not have thought of it, but blueberry bushes take no more room than a typical dahila or rosebush and are less work than either. They can be grown in half-barrels on a balcony or patio, as long as you have two of them to ensure pollination. If you have room, you can grow blueberries in a separate sunny bed or border. But you can also intercrop them with flowers or other shrubs, a technique I've been experimenting with over the years, as, like many other gardeners, I'm always short of space.
The trick to intercropping is meeting the blueberries' basic requirements. While you may have seen blueberries growing in partial shade in the wild, they'll produce more and bigger berries if they have full sun for at least six hours a day. The other essential requirement is acidic soil that's well drained and humus rich. If your soil is alkaline, you'll have to amend it before you plant blueberries. Reader's Digest 1001 Hints and Tips For Your Garden recommends digging a hole 3 feet deep and 6 feet across and filling it with an equal mix of peat moss and sand to solve this problem. It's always a good idea to add peat moss when you're planting blueberry bushes.
Because blueberries are acid lovers, my most successful intercropping experiment so far has resulted from bedding blueberries with other acid-loving shrubs. In the last place we lived, I had a border across the very back of my yard (approximately 50 feet) where I grew blueberries interspersed with rhododendrons and whatever flowers I could entice to grow there, including Shirley poppies and dahlias. What I loved about this border was its successive flowering; in the spring, the border came to life with waves of rhododendron blooms; in the summer, the poppies turned the border into a swathe of cheerful red, mauve and pink, climaxing in the fall, when the border was at its gaudy peak exploding with dahlia blooms as the blueberry bushes turned scarlet.
You may not want to go this far, but growing your blueberries with companionable acid-loving shrubs can make a very attractive border and make feeding your acid-loving plants much easier as they're all in one place. (A note: don't be afraid to put rhododendrons in full sun; I buy my rhododendrons from a man who's been growing and propagating them for over 30 years, and he swears that rhododendrons don't mind being in the sun at all. And his are gorgeous. All two thousand or so. If you're worried about it, ask your nursery person for rhododendrons that have the most tolerance for exposed sites. Generally, the main threat to rhododendrons is wind, not sun.)
When you're selecting blueberry plants, you need to consider their type and cross-pollination. There are actually four types of bushes to choose from; highbush blueberries grow 6 to 12 feet tall, lowbush blueberries grow 1 to 2 feet tall, making an attractive groundcover, rabbiteye blueberries grow to 15 feet tall, and midhigh blueberries are hybrid cultivars that grow 2 to 4 feet tall, combining the best qualities of highbush and lowbush plants. If you're a Canadian gardener, you won't be interested in rabbiteye bushes; they thrive in zones 7 through 9 and are known for their heat and drought tolerance. Lowbush blueberries are of special interest because of their cold hardiness; they can be grown from zones 2 through 6, while highbush blueberries can be risky in Northern gardens; they're best in zones 4 through 7.
Whichever type of blueberries you choose to grow, you should always try to get 2- or 3- year-old plants so they'll start producing for you quickly, and you need to choose several different cultivars to ensure cross-pollination and good fruit set. Planting several different cultivars is also a great way to extend your blueberry harvesting season; by planting early, midseason and later varieties, you can be picking fresh blueberries for weeks on end.
The three varieties of blueberries I grow are all highbush types; 'Bluejay' produces firm, medium large, light blue fruit in early midseason, 'Blue Ray' bears large, highly flavoured crisp berries in midseason, and 'Bluecrop' bears large, light blue, slightly tart berries in midseason. A highbush blueberry will typically yield up to 6 pounds of berries once it reaches 8 years old.
Highbush and midhigh blueberries require the same care. For the first two years of their lives, you need to remove all the flowers from your plants, so they can put all their energy into producing roots and shoots. Each spring, fertilize your blueberries. I use Miracid, but blood meal, soybean meal and ammonium sulfate have all been recommended to me. Mulch your berry bushes with oak leaves, pine needles, woodchips or another acidic material to a depth of 1 to 2 inches to protect their shallow roots and renew the mulch as needed. Water regularly, taking special care for the first year after planting and never let them go thirsty; blueberries produce larger crops and bigger berries if they're constantly supplied with moisture.
In early summer, get the netting out; birds love blueberries and will strip the berries from your bushes before you get a chance to even taste one. If you want to harvest blueberries, you need to cover the bushes with netting just before the berries change colour. If you don't have many berry bushes, you might want to use my method of making a stucco wire cage for each bush; just cut the stucco wire to an appropriate length to encircle your plant and cover the top of the cage with netting. This works well for me because the cages are easy to lift off at harvest time. You can also build frames to support your netting out of wood or plastic plumbing pipe. (The advantage of using plastic pipe is that you can take it apart easily when the harvest is done.)
You may or may not need to prune your bushes; generally blueberries are self-shaping, although they may need some thinning to stay healthy and productive. Never prune your young bushes; wait until your plants are three years old and prune in late winter or early spring just before growth begins each year. From age 3 to 8, remove the prostrate canes and any canes that are less than 2 feet tall from your highbush blueberries, cutting them off flush with the base of the bush. Once the plant is over 8 years old, follow the same procedure, but also cut two or three of the oldest canes off the plant each year to keep the bush producing vigorously.
While blueberries are propagated commercially by tissue culture, they can be propagated by hardwood or softwood cuttings. Lowbush blueberries are fairly easy to divide when dormant.
Two to four years after planting, blueberries will start to produce fruit. This will be the biggest test of your patience, but don't pick your berries as soon as they turn blue. Let the berries hang on the branches a few more days to develop their full sweetness and aroma. Then tickle the fruit clusters and the ripe berries will fall into your hands. There's no point to picking underripe berries; they won't ripen further after picking. If you need to pull at a berry to get it off the branch, it's not ready yet. The great thing about blueberries is that they hang on the bush after they're ripe; picking them twice a week will suffice.
Everyone I live with likes to eat blueberries as soon as I've harvested them, but if you ever get the chance to store some, they'll keep in your fridge for about a week. Excess berries, should you ever reach that point, can be frozen, canned or made into jam.
For me, eating fresh ripe blueberries is still like eating sunshine. If you pick several varieties of blueberries to plant, plant them in the right spot, and protect them from birds, you can harvest your own sunshine too.
About the Author Susan Ward is an ex-English Teacher who now earns her living by writing. She is author of the column "Gardening in B.C." at Suite 101.