Blueberries

Beautiful in the landscape and delicious straight off the bush, this no-fuss fruit is a natural for the organic garden.

By Lee Reich

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I grow a slew of both common and uncommon fruits, from apples to kiwis to pears to paw-paws. I love them all, but if pressed to recommend just one must-grow fruit, it would be blueberries. These native Americans have stolen my heart for many reasons. The fruit is abundant and seductively sweet, especially when allowed to fully ripen on the shrub—a luxury commercial growers cannot afford. The shrubs make beautiful specimens in the landscape, not surprising considering their lineage to the mountain laurel, rhododendron, and azalea. In spring, their branches are festooned with delicate, bell-shaped flowers. Summer brings lush, blue-tinged foliage, which turns fiery red in fall. Blueberries have no thorns, making them a joy to prune and harvest. 

If great taste and beauty are not enough for you, blueberries are literally just what the doctor ordered. Blueberries contain more cancer-fighting antioxidants than any other fruit or vegetable. So what are you waiting for?

Varieties and Soil
The first key to success is to pick the right variety for your climate and to give it company. Blueberries produce more and bigger fruit when planted with at least one other variety to allow for cross-pollination. Planting multiple varieties with different maturity dates also stretches out the harvest season. Each summer, I enjoy over two months of freshly picked berries from my fourteen bushes (representing 9 varieties) here in upstate New York.

Before settling on specific varieties, you will need to choose the types of blueberries that are best suited to your region: highbush, lowbush, half-high, or rabbiteye. Regardless if you live in Manitoba or Miami, there is a blueberry type that will thrive in your backyard. (Please see "The Right Varieties for Your Climate, below.)

A second key to success is soil. Blueberries demand soil quite different from that enjoyed by most other garden plants. For blueberries to thrive, the soil must be well aerated, moist, very high in humus, and—most important of all—very acidic. These conditions are not, however, difficult to create. Start by doing a soil test, then acidifying it, if necessary to a pH of between 4 and 5.5 by mixing in sulfur, a natural mineral, the season before you plant your blueberries. The amount to use depends on your soil's initial pH and your soil's texture, and ranges from one to seven pounds per hundred square feet. If you indicate on your soil test that you will be planting blueberries, most testing services will tell you the amount of sulfur to use. Mix it into the top six inches of soil across the area of the entire mature root zone.

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