Consumed for centuries by native North Americans and cultivated for over 100 years on farms and in home gardens, blueberries have really hit the big time! Global production has skyrocketed in the last 15 years. Health benefits are the primary reason these flavorful and versatile berries are so widely planted and enjoyed around the world. Low in fat and sodium, blueberries are an excellent source of fiber, manganese and Vitamins C and K.
Blueberries didn't grow wild where I lived in southern Ohio, and no one I knew grew them, so when I went hiking in areas where they did grow, I was always thrilled to pick and eat the small, flavorful fruit. Years later, while visiting a friend who had a small farm in Maine, I saw one of the farmhands walk by with a big bowl of freshly picked blueberries from their cultivated patch. I could not get over the size of those fruit. My love of blueberries has since increased. I think you'll have the same experience as you learn more about blueberries and grow some of your own.
Native to North America and popular around the world, blueberries provide the fiber, manganese and vitamins associated with a healthy diet.
What questions should I ask before buying blueberry plants?
When you see blueberry plants for sale online, in a catalog or at the garden center, there are a number of questions to consider before purchasing.
Will blueberries grow in my hardiness zone?
There is hardly any area where blueberries can't be grown.
Sometimes gardeners in Northern regions feel neglected because many fruits are not cold hardy enough to grow in their colder zones. This is where blueberries come to the rescue. Several varieties are hardy even in zone 3. And with a hardiness range that extends down into zone 10, even gardeners in Southern regions can enjoy blueberries.
Which blueberry varieties grow best in my area?
To answer this question, let's look at the different types of blueberries.
Northern Highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) are the most common type of blueberry grown in the United States. Hardy in zones 3-8, they are native to much of eastern North America and can be found growing in moist, acidic soils. Northern Highbush were the first type of blueberry to be cultivated in a traditional farm setting and hybridized. These efforts started in the early 1900s and continue today.
Southern Highbush blueberries are a cross of Northern Highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum) and Rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium ashei). Not quite as hardy as Northern Highbush, they bloom earlier and have lower chill-hour requirements. Southern Highbush are ideally suited for the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, lower Midwest, Southern California and the Pacific Northwest.
Southern Highbush are more tolerant of heat and drought than Northern Highbush and suffer from fewer diseases and insect pests. As true of other blueberries, it helps to have at least two varieties for pollination. A Northern Highbush will pollinate a Southern Highbush when their bloom times coincide.
Northern Highbush can be grown as far north as zone 3 and as far south as zone 8.
Southern Highbush is heat and drought tolerant, which makes it ideal for the Southeast and warmer regions of the country.
Lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) are the iconic fruit of the New England blueberry barrens, wide expanses of land with minimal vegetation. Native to northeastern United States and eastern Canada, they grow in very acidic, shallow soil, and their small, sweet fruit has intense blueberry flavor.
Long before European settlers arrived on the continent, Native American tribes regularly burned the wild barrens to keep them healthy and productive. Individuals and commercial enterprises still harvest berries from the barrens. The fruit can often be found in the frozen section of your local grocery store.
Rabbiteye blueberries (Vacinnium ashei) are native to the Southeast. These large bushes can grow 20' tall and are hardy in zones 7-9. In the northernmost part of the growing zone, Rabbiteye overlap with Northern Highbush. Typically, they require fewer chill hours and bloom earlier than Northern Highbush. Rabbiteye blueberries are very productive and tolerant of more alkaline soils They are easy to grow and have few problems with insects or disease.
How easy are blueberry plants to grow?
Cultivating blueberries is easy if you address a few specific requirements. You often read how they need very acidic soil to thrive. It is true, they do prefer an acid soil with a pH of about 5. However, with good drainage, proper fertilization and the addition of sulfur, you can grow blueberries in less acidic soil.
If possible, prepare your soil one year in advance of your plan to plant blueberry bushes. Start by getting a soil test. A soil test will help guide you to the proper soil amendments and rates of application. Generous amounts of peat moss and/or pine bark tilled into a mounded bed will help lower soil pH and add organic matter. Peat moss helps retain moisture, and pine bark improves drainage. Tilling in 3-4" of aged wood chips has also been shown to be beneficial.
An adequate water supply is critical to success. Blueberries are very shallow rooted plants and require frequent watering. It is especially important to keep the soil moist from bloom time through harvest. Feed your plants with a fertilizer blend that is specifically formulated for acid-loving plants. I recommend Gurney's Blueberry Food, which you apply twice each year—once at bloom time and again six weeks later.
Will my blueberry plant produce fruit the first year?
A question often posted on our help line is, "Will my plant produce fruit the first year?" The answer is a bit complicated. Sometimes first year plants will produce fruit. However, you typically don't want your blueberry bush to produce fruit the first year—and sometimes not even the second year. Fruit production early in the life of a blueberry bush can stunt its growth and reduce overall production throughout its life. The best practice is to pinch off first-year blooms before they start setting fruit. In year two, if your plant is not well established and vigorous, it's wise to pinch off half of the second-year blooms. I know it's hard to pinch off blooms knowing you'll miss tasting fresh blueberries, but in the long run you'll be rewarded.
How long is the fruiting season?
In addition to ensuring good pollination, planting multiple varieties can extend your harvest. An 8 to 10 week harvest period is possible if you pay attention to ripening times. A good Northern Highbush combination for extending the harvest season would include Reka (early), Chandler (midseason) and Jersey (late season).
How will blueberry bushes affect the attractiveness of my home landscape?
Blueberries are an excellent edible, ornamental choice for your home landscape because they provide three seasons of interest.
In the spring, the curious upside-down clusters of urn-shaped flowers will likely elicit comments from passersby. Because the flowers are a good source of nectar and pollen for native bees and honeybees, they are sure to attract better pollinators to your garden.
These fruiting plants are also attractive in the summer landscape. Gardeners are always longing to add blue color to their gardens. And who could deny the beauty of a bush fully loaded with powder-blue fruit?
When autumn rolls around, the brilliant oranges and reds of the fall foliage are rivaled by few other shrubs. The most stunning autumn color combination can be seen in our own double cropping Echo blueberry. Echo's second crop ripens as its foliage changes color. The sight of ripening blue fruit against a backdrop of dazzling red foliage is unforgettable!