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Gardening 101: Blueberries

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Gardening 101: Blueberries

April 5, 2018

Blueberry, Vaccinium spp.: “Ornamental Superfood”

Blueberries were the first fruit I grew in my first Brooklyn garden on a tiny 50th-floor terrace in Brooklyn. I expected a lot from my collection of potted plants, which were squeezed into just 66 square feet of space (along with a table and chairs, and a barbecue). Each had to deliver as much as possible in terms of seasonal interest. There was no space to host a plant with only one seasonal card to play.

The blueberry did not let me down: There were its exquisitely pretty bell-shaped flowers in spring, powdery blue fruit in summer, and spectacular red foliage in fall. I fell in love. My shrub moved—twice—when we did, and I now grow three blueberry bushes in-ground, in a semi-shady backyard with a naturally low pH.

Read on to learn how to grow your own blueberries at home, for year-round pleasure and summer eating.

Photography by Marie Viljoen, except where noted.

Blueberries belong to the Vaccinium genus, which comprises dozens of species and includes fruit such as cranberries and huckleberries.
Above: Blueberries belong to the Vaccinium genus, which comprises dozens of species and includes fruit such as cranberries and huckleberries.

In terms of blueberries, and for most gardening purposes, we will consider three easily available North American species plus their hybrids: the well-known highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), tough lowbush (Vaccinium angustifolium), rabbit-eye (Vaccinium virgatum), and the hybrid southern highbush blueberry. Each has its own set of characteristics suiting it to different regions. And because blueberries are thoroughly domesticated, many cultivars of each are available in the nursery trade.

Photograph by Sabrina Settaro via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Sabrina Settaro via Flickr.

While they are known mainly for their sweet and beautiful fruit, blueberries are shrubs with significant ornamental appeal, and are effective planted as specimens in a mixed border, as a hedge, or as simple kitchen garden powerhouses. Bees and other pollinators love the flowers, and a blueberry presence in your garden will support and encourage local biodiversity.

Blueberry bushes thrive in my Brooklyn garden.
Above: Blueberry bushes thrive in my Brooklyn garden.

Above: In my current New York garden, the pH is 5.4. This is lucky: One thing all blueberries have in common is the absolute requirement of acidic soil (with a pH of between 4 and 5.5). While garden soil with a high pH can be amended, it is best to plant blueberry bushes in a naturally acidic environment. Blueberries thrive with plenty of organic matter, consistent as well as plentiful water, and good drainage. The shrubs will fruit prolifically in full sun (six hours or more of direct sun) but will produce fruit in dappled, high shade, or semi shade.

Northern Highbush Blueberry

Highbush blueberries are hardy in USDA growing zones 6 to 8.
Above: Highbush blueberries are hardy in USDA growing zones 6 to 8.

Popular and plump highbush blueberry fruit cultivars are what we typically see at market. True to their name these long-lived shrubs can grow tall, upwards of eight feet. While highbush blueberries are self-fertile, they will bear more fruit if you plant more than one cultivar (this is the name that appears capped in ‘Single Quotation Marks’ on a plant’s label), for cross-pollination.

Lowbush Blueberry

Lowbush blueberries are hardy in zones 3 to 8.
Above: Lowbush blueberries are hardy in zones 3 to 8.

Lowbush blueberries are the fruit for frigid winters. With a compact growth habit and smaller but flavorful fruit, they are the shrub of commercial fruit production in the chilly Northeast. The shrubs grow to a height of two feet. They are self-fertile, but for optimum fruit set, plant more than one cultivar.

Photograph by Ryan Barraford via Instagram.
Above: Photograph by Ryan Barraford via Instagram.

Like all blueberries, lowbush shrubs provide a burst of hot fall color.

There are now many so called half-high hybrid blueberry cultivars available at nurseries. They are a cross between highbush and lowbush, combining the best qualities of each for a blueberry adaptable to a wider range of conditions.

Rabbit-eye or Smallflower Blueberry

Photograph by Allison Marshall via Instagram.
Above: Photograph by Allison Marshall via Instagram.

Native to the southeastern states, tough rabbit-eye blueberries are suited to warmer winters and can take some dry spells. They dislike cold snaps and are hardy from USDA zones 8 to 10.

Southern Highbush Blueberry Hybrids

Not a species, but a hybrid, southern highbush shrubs are a boon to gardeners in regions with shorter winters, hotter summers, and less rainfall.
Above: Not a species, but a hybrid, southern highbush shrubs are a boon to gardeners in regions with shorter winters, hotter summers, and less rainfall.

A cross between northern highbush and heat-tolerant blueberries native to the South, these relatively new hybrids are bred for more resilience and less fuss; the result is a plant that does not require a seriously cold winter to produce fruit. It also tolerates periods of heat and water stress better than its northern cousins. New cultivars are arriving at nurseries as this blueberry becomes popular. Plant more than one cultivar for best fruit production (southern highbush can cross-pollinate with northern highbush too). These hybrids are hardy from zones 7 to 10.

Blueberry blossoms in spring by Marie Viljoen

Cheat Sheet

  • In a word, acid. Blueberries demand a low pH, ideally between 4 and 5.5. It is best if the soil is naturally acidic.
  • Test your soil to determine its pH.
  • Blueberries love consistent and plentiful moisture, but good drainage.
  • Organic material is important: Use lots of compost and wood chips to improve drainage.
  • Pruning: In early spring, prune off dead or weak wood as well as spindly branches. Blueberries fruit best on one-year-old wood, from the previous summer’s growth.
  • Feed your shrubs moderately in early spring and early summer (try Espoma for acid-loving plants).
  • Blueberries have shallow root systems and are vulnerable to drying out: mulch the shrubs, using compost, fir chips, or bark.

Keep It Alive

  • If you have alkaline soil, it is simpler to grow blueberries in a pot where you can control the pH.
  • Myth-busting: Used coffee grounds will not change your soil’s pH dramatically. The water in your coffee has leached out the acid: used grounds are close to neutral in pH. At best they are a good organic addition or mulch for the soil (and may lower the pH about half a point, over time). Fresh coffee grounds will acidify the soil, if applied regularly (an expensive option!).
  • Acidify potted blueberries with collected leftover coffee (the liquid, not the used grounds) mixed with water, weekly.
  • Use a soil mix high in organic matter and mix with bark chips.
  • If you are intrepid (and can cope with possible failure, as blueberries are very sensitive about pH), acidify alkaline garden soil with elemental sulfur. The sulfur is broken down slowly by bacteria in warm weather, so apply in late spring.
  • For moderate pH amendment (to lower it about half a point), add compost, aged manure, alfalfa meal, or other organic matter to the growing medium.
  • Blueberries dislike being overfed.
  • Cover the bushes with bird netting in early summer to save your harvest from squirrels and feathered friends. For more ways to protect your fruit, see Hardscaping 101: Fruit Cages.

Planning a garden? See more about at Blueberries: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design and Everything You Need to Know About Edible Gardens. Don’t miss:

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