Blueberries: Delicious, healthy and easy to grow

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All the miserable June and July weather aside, this is still the best time to be in Maine if for no other reason than the food choices Mother Nature sends us. From strawberries to raspberries and now blueberries, nothing beats the fresh fruit straight from the landscape.

And while many crops – tomatoes, peppers, corn and melons – are fading in the rain and low temperatures, the three primary fruit crops have shown incredible resiliency. Ripening may be a week or so late, but the yields this year have been outstanding.

At our home, we follow the blueberry harvest up the coast in anticipation of our own season. We begin buying the Georgia crop in April and June, then grab the New Jersey crop from the grocery store in July. Blueberries, even the ones shipped in, may be the most delicious and most nutritious food on the planet. Researchers have discovered all sorts of benefits, including anti-aging properties and improved cardiovascular health.

Among 40 fruits and vegetables tested by the United States Department of Agriculture at Tufts University, blueberries contained the highest levels of antioxidants, which help protect the body against stress and disease.

Of course, my children don’t care about anti-aging properties. They simply enjoy charging out the back door and gobbling down blueberries by the handful. Generally pest and disease free, the plants will produce fruit without pesticides.

Here’s a primer on how to do it . . .

SELECTION – The classic lowbush “Maine blueberry,” Vaccinium angustifolium, and highbush blueberry, V. corymbosum, are both available at many nurseries and garden centers. Lowbush berries are generally sweeter and contain higher sugar content, but high bush cultivars such as ‘Patriot,’ ‘Berkeley,’ and ‘Jersey’ are more readily available and will be much easier to grow successfully for the backyard gardener.

SITE & SOIL – Plant all blueberry varieties in an area of full sun to only partial shade. Acid soil is needed, ideally with a pH of 4.5, in a well-drained area. You can acidify the soil with peat moss, oak leaves, or by incorporating aluminum sulphate into the planting area.

Heavy loam won’t work well. If you treat these plants like many plants, you may kill them with kindness. If you have a sandy area of thin soil, the plants will do well, but you’ll need to take extra care to water the plants until they become established.

PRUNING – Plants bloom on new growth, so all varieties of blueberries will benefit from heavy pruning back after bloom – if heavy fruiting is the goal. If you’re growing the plant primarily for appearance, prune only to personal preference.

Some commercial growers of lowbush blueberries do still burn their fields in the early spring to take care of weeds and to rejuvenate the plants. This is rarely practical for the home gardener, and many growers are now finding that burning depletes the layer of organic matter in the soil, and have turned to mowing fields after fruiting.

POLLINATION – Blueberries need to be pollinated by insects, and planting multiple varieties in close proximity will increase the fruit yield. Commercial growers will often bring in extra beehives during bloom in the spring to increase the fruit yield later in the summer.

WEEDS – Shrub-like highbush varieties, by their nature, are easy to keep weeded, but lowbush varieties can be difficult. A pre-emergent control applied in the spring, such as corn gluten, will make the task easier throughout the season. Avoid using a hoe around the plants as the shallow roots don’t like to be disturbed.

FERTILIZATION – Choose a product suited for acidic plants such as rhododendrons and azaleas. Top-dressing occasionally with compost will also benefit the plants, as long as the soil doesn’t become too rich.

EATING – To ensure that the berries wind up in your bowl and not in the birds’ beaks, you should cover your plants with a mesh netting as soon as the fruit begins to ripen. After that, eat them raw or cook away. There may be as many recipes for blueberries as there are cooks.

Paul Tukey is publisher of People, Places & Plants magazine and founder of SafeLawns.org. With questions or comments, email Paul@SafeLawns.org.

blueberries.jpgHigh in antioxidants and relatively easy to grow, blueberries can be a sweet addition to any home garden.

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