By Mara Higdon
(This article first appeared in The Gateway Gardener March 2010 issue.)
Growing blueberries is relatively easy once they are established. As an added bonus, the blueberry shrub provides beautiful fall foliage. There are many varieties to choose from that range in height, fruiting season, and seasonal temperature tolerances. For an urban area, I would suggest the mid-high hybrid cultivars that range from 2-4 feet in height. There are also low-bush varieties that grow 1-2 feet in height. Either size can be used in the landscape as a border or hedge. Select 2-3 year old plants so you don’t have to wait as long for your bushes to bear fruit. Blueberries need at least 6 hours of sunlight, so choose a sunny location that is prominent and visible. Blueberries love acidic soil, so if possible plant near other acid-loving plants, such as rhododendrons, in your garden. If you are starting from scratch and your soil is alkaline you will need to dig in some peat moss.
Once planted, be sure to baby them their first year. Keep them well watered and mulched with oak leaves or pine needles or any other acidic material. This is also the best time to cover the bushes with netting to protect the blueberries from birds. Birds can strip blueberries off the plant in no time so take preventive measures now! You can also use sturdy cage wiring to provide more support for your netting to rest upon.
Pruning is sometimes necessary, but not for another couple of years. Give them time to establish themselves. By the time your plants are 4-5 years old they should be producing about 3-5 pounds of fruit per plant depending on the cultivar. Prune in late winter or early spring before new growth begins.
Depending on the cultivar you choose, plants produce blueberries from June to August. I would recommend getting a couple of early, mid, and late berry-producing cultivars to extend your blueberry consuming season as long as possible. Blueberries are ready to harvest when they fall from the bush when gently brushed. You shouldn’t have to pull them off. An unripe blueberry is an unripe blueberry. Once picked, the blueberry will not ripen “off the vine”. It’s best not to wash the blueberries if you are planning on storing them. Put them directly into baggies and freeze.
Blueberries are delicious just about any time. Fresh is always best though. At my house (if they make it that far) we eat the frozen blueberries for a nice cooling summer snack.
Mara Higdon is the Program Director at Gateway Greening. They focus on community development throughout the St Louis area. You can reach her at (314) 588-9600 x22.