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Gardening Tips: Growing blueberries

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April 12, 2019 11:45 am Updated: April 12, 2019 11:51 am

 

I know that many of you have already started planting trees and shrubs during the brief warm spells that are typical of early April.

It is important to put some thought in before putting plants in that are expected to thrive for a long time. Proper site selection and preparation will pay off in the long run for most fruit crops.

Blueberries, in particular, will do far better if the site is prepared well in advance of planting the bushes. Preparing the site as long as a year in advance will pay off in the long run.

These popular fruit are really not hard to grow and can survive for decades with some routine care and maintenance once established.

The first step is to pick a spot that gets full sun all day long. The site should be well drained as well. The ideal soil for these acid loving plants is a sandy loam that is enriched with lots and lots of peat moss.

There is not much you can do to change the texture of your soil, but all soils can be improved by repeatedly adding organic matter.

If you have clay soil or very sandy soil, tilling in a 4 inch layer of peat moss three or four times in the year prior to planting will make it much better. Blueberries demand acid soil with an ideal pH of less than 5.0.

Most of our soils in this region are naturally acid but any area that has had lime, wood ash or compost added on a regular basis will probably have a pH of closer to 6 or 7.

Try to pick a spot that has never been limed if possible and have the soil tested for pH by your local office of Cornell Cooperative Extension or a local garden center that offers this service.

Adding lots of peat moss will lower the pH as well as adding organic matter. You can also buy chemicals such as iron sulphate or aluminum sulphate that will quickly lower the pH, but they are tricky to use and offer a temporary fix. Buy a few bales of compressed peat moss instead and work it in.

Eliminate all perennial weeds in your prospective site by repeatedly tilling the soil and mulching with a four inch layer of peat moss to suppress new ones.

It may take a whole season to properly eliminate weeds, lower the pH and add sufficient organic matter.

It is also important to build a permanent structure around the bed that will allow you to put up plastic netting to protect the crop from birds. I think this is just as important as preparing the soil in advance.

Blueberries are highly prized by many species of birds including robins, catbirds and any other species that eat fruit.

They also need a week or more to fully ripen after they turn blue and I can guarantee you that the birds will eat all of them before you do if the bushes are not properly netted!

Put sturdy stakes around the beds to allow easy placement and removal of the netting.

The following varieties should all thrive throughout our region.

n Earliblue — hardy in Zones 5 to 7. Berries are large with light blue skin and have a soft flesh and mild flavor. The fruit does not shatter (drop easily) from the bush, and it is resistant to cracking. Plants are vigorous, productive, upright, and well shaped.

n Duke — hardy in Zones 5 to 7. This productive newer variety from New Jersey has large fruit with good flavor.

n Blueray — hardy in Zones 4b to 7. Berries ripen in early midseason and are crack resistant and very large with medium–light blue skin, firm flesh, and a strong flavor and aroma. The plants are upright, spreading, and consistently productive. It overproduces (produces too much fruit, weakening the plant) unless carefully pruned.

n Patriot — hardy in Zones 4 to 7. It is partially resistant to phytophthora root rot and has excellent-tasting fruit. The plants are vigorous, productive, open, upright, and smaller than other cultivars.

n Berkeley — hardy in Zones 4 to 8. Berries are very large and light blue and have a mild flavor and firm flesh. Berries ripen in midseason, store well, resist cracking, and do not shatter from the bush. The plants are vigorous, open, spreading, and easy to grow.

n Bluecrop — hardy in Zones 4b to 7. Berries are medium large and have a light blue skin, an excellent flavor, and firm flesh. Berries shatter somewhat from the bush, but they resist cracking. The plants are vigorous, consistently productive, spreading, and drought tolerant. This is the most popular variety in the world.

Reach Bob Beyfuss at rlb14@cornell.edu.