“Girls, can you run outside and pick some blueberries for the pancakes?”
was a question common in our house each June and July Sunday. We would grab a cup and head out to the woods, not the garden, the woods, to pick as many blueberries as the cups would hold, presenting them proudly to mom and dad who were in the kitchen whipping up pancake batter while we stalked the wild berries. If I remember correctly, it was “2 for the cup one for me”, or maybe the other way around. I think about this during a recent visit to western Maine as I squat down to examine small blueberry bushes, with diminutive fruit on them. These are similar to those we harvested beneath the oaks and pines in NJ but are a far cry from the behemoth berries I picked a week ago from a friends farm in Northern NJ.
The Highs and Lows of Blueberries
While many Vacciniums can be found growing wild throughout the US. Probably the most well-known are Highbush (V. corymbosum) and Lowbush (V. angustifolium) Blueberries. Native to the Northeast, these represent the majority of the blueberries you will see on hikes and paddles around the region. (There is nothing like quietly paddling up to a large stand of high bush blueberries leaning down towards the waters edge from their perch and ingesting handfuls from the cockpit of your kayak. Try it!) While they will both do well in sun to part shade, exhibiting better fruiting and fall color with more sun, and they both produce berries 1/4″ – 1/2″ around, they differ in dimension. Highbush Blueberries will grow to 10 feet tall while Lowbush Blueberries top out at 2 feet. It is the Highbush that has been cultivated for Blueberry Crop Pordcution and the Lowbush that is commonly called “Wild Blueberries”, the kind you may see in ready-made pancake mixes and syrups.
Blueberries as Ornament
I recommend planting blueberries in landscapes all the time. ALL.THE.TIME. I suggest them as an alternative to the ubiquitous Burning Bush (Euonymous alata) you probably notice each fall around every bank and hospital and strip mall parking lot across there nation. Don’t realize it’s there any other time of the year? That’s because it is BORING every other time of the year, transitioning from brown blob in winter, to green blob through spring into summer and in fall turning to a bright red blob for a couple weeks before returning to brown blob. BORING! But I digress, and I refuse to put a photo of the plant here and risk readers running out to get one! Just drive around any developed area obviously landscaped with little creativity or thought of diversity and I am sure you will see a hedge of them.
(Oh wait, never mind – here’s a photo of burning bush in fall – filling up the understory of a Pennsylvania state park. It is native to Japan, China and Korea, it gets tiny little red fruits in late summer which are eaten by birds, because they have nothing else to eat because this shrub has displaced all their native food sources. The birds fly from the landscape where they found this fruit back to the forest where they deposit the seed and then mayhem and ecological destruction ensue. )
I recommend Blueberries because they offer multiple seasons of interest in your landscape. White bell-shaped flowers in spring, blueberries in summer, brilliant red fall color and red twigs in winter. It is the perfect landscape plant. Except…
Except, I have come to the sad realization, it may not be. It is tricky to grow. It needs particular growing conditions that may not be happening in your traditional garden. It is not a shrub for the beginner. Unlike Burning Bush, it will not grow just about anywhere. It will feed wildlife though with fruit they have evolved to consume, which means you may not get any of those tasty morsels without significant shrub fortification. Highbush Blueberries have been cultivated for generations to produce larger, tastier fruit but the tricky cultural needs still confound many growers.
Not quite as easy as pie.
To grow these be sure to give them acidic soils. A pH of 4.5-5.5 is best. This becomes tricky because the majority of garden plants prefer a circumneutral pH of 6.5 – 7.5. Which means, if you have the right soil pH for blueberries you may have trouble growing much else, and if you have the right pH for growing most plants, you are going to have a difficult time growing blueberries. Sure they will survive in other conditions and soil types, but will they thrive – nuh-uh. In improper soil conditions you will get yellowing of leaves, poor fruit set, if any, and poor fall color. Your soil should also be well-drained and high in organic content. In the wild, blueberries are found on the edges of woodlands near, or sometimes in, wet areas. You can use their natural location to guide where you plant them in your garden.
If you have acidic soil – plant these! Perhaps you have been struggling to find plants that will do well in your landscape and the typical, generic landscape plants just aren’t getting the job done. Perform a soil pH test. Every state in the country has extension offices, these are terrific gardening resources and can help you figure out your soil pH. Knowing this will help you tremendously in creating a successful landscape.
Blueberries as a Food Source
If you do not have acidic soil but would still like to grow blueberries you will have to create a garden space just for these. If you are not really interested in the fruit, then I would recommend selecting native plants suitable for your soil types.
There are many ways people recommend acidifying your soil. Some things to remember if you are going to attempt this:
- This will take a few years. (Typically I recommend people work with the soil they have. Soil has formed over eons and to think that you will be able to change it in a season or two so you can grow what you want, is a bit ambitious – but in this case, I understand – after all – you will get blueberries from the shrubs. BLUEBERRIES!!)
- You will be changing the soil in an area of the garden, so existing plants may struggle.
- There are important critters below ground that will be impacted by the soil change.
- Most resources recommend adding elemental sulfur to the soil to lower the pH, how much you add, how often and when is determined by your soil type. You do know your soil type…don’t you?
You can find everything you need to know about growing blueberries on this handy information sheet.
There are countless cultivars of Highbush Blueberry. Some have larger fruit, some vary in fruiting time, others are better suited to drought conditions, some are more cold tolerant. Go to the garden center, take a look at the types of blueberries they have available, and then do some research. Determine which will work best for your needs, your climatic circumstances and your landscape conditions. Then go back, load up the car and plant them!
Bloom on the Blueberry
Once you have created the ideal conditions for blueberry growing, you will find your plants laden with berries. Some varieties become so heavy with fruit, their branches can’t hold them up! And of course you will have to battle birds and other wildlife for those nutrient rich summer fruits. To protect your berries, cover the growing berries with bird netting once the berries start to form and are still green. Do not cover them while they are in flower or the pollinators will not be able to get to the flowers and you, your shrubs and your efforts will be fruitless.
When you harvest your berries you will notice a whitish cast to them. This is good stuff. This ‘bloom’ on the blueberry is actually a light coating of natural wax meant to protect the fruit from damage due to sun, wind, insects, etc etc. Similar waxes can be found on grapes. It’s their all-natural sunscreen and bug-repellent all rolled into one. It is perfectly safe to eat and is also the reason why you don’t want to wash your berries until right before you eat them. Removing the bloom on the berry significantly decreases their shelf life. After my recent trip to Maine I certainly wish I had my own naturally occurring sunscreen and, especially, bug repellent!
Only NJ Blueberries will do.
I am a blueberry snob. Even though I am no longer a resident of the great Garden State, I ONLY eat blueberries grown in New Jersey and I only eat them fresh during the short “blueberry season”. In fact, my skin may develop a slight blue hue during this season – perhaps forming a natural sun and insect repellent? I hoard them by the bushel and freeze them with abandon to enjoy during the much longer “no-blueberry season”. Having grown up in the Pine Barrens, home to Hammonton, NJ – THE “Blueberry Capital of the World” (a claim also pronounced by Cherryfield, Maine and South Haven, Michigan) I feel a strong allegiance to this native fruit and it just seems right for me to stick with blueberries grown in NJ. After all, the blueberry was first cultivated and hybridized in New Jersey, way back in the early 1900s by Elizabeth White in Whitesbog “Home of the Highbush Blueberry.”
While I will adhere firmly to the idea that Hammonton, NJ is the Blueberry Capital of the World, there is evidence to prove otherwise. What do you think – is it Cherryfield, Maine, Hammonton, NJ or South Haven, Michigan? By the way… Maine, Michigan and New Jersey are three of my very favorite states…must be the blueberries.
Have you had luck growing your own blueberries? Or do you prefer to let someone else do the growing and pick your own? Or do you get them wherever and whenever you can?