Top 10 Reasons to Grow Blueberries

Yesterday's harvest: ten cups of yummy berries!
If I could only grow one fruit, it would be blueberries. I love them! This is the first year since I planted blueberries on this land 8 years ago that I will harvest enough without augmenting with a visit to a u-pick farm. Yeah!

Why grow blueberries? Because they are...
  1. packed with nutrients
  2. naturally pest- and disease-resistant
  3. low maintenance
  4. attractive additions to a landscape in all seasons
  5. easy to harvest
  6. heat, cold, and drought tolerant
  7. delicious
  8. eaten raw or cooked
  9. easy to preserve (freeze, dehydrate, jam)
  10. naturally sweet
Blueberries are great in these lemon yellow squash muffins!

Choosing a variety
Blueberries come in 3 basic types: low bush, high bush, and rabbit eye. Within each type, varieties can be chosen for harvesting in early, middle, or late season. Wild blueberries grow in many parts of the country, and tend to be smaller berries than the nursery varieties - but still wonderful. Check with your local garden centers and research varieties online to see which are best suited for your area. 

Some varieties are self-pollinating, but a bigger yield and extended season comes from planting more than one variety. I have several varieties, for a total of 12 bushes. Originally, I had carefully diagrammed which variety was planted in each spot, to help me keep track. Unfortunately, while moving some of the bushes around I lost track of what some of them are. No harm done - I love them all! My selection here in Tennessee  - zone 7 - includes Misty (a Southern high bush), Tifblue Rabbiteye, Climax Rabbiteye, Bluecrop high bush, Powderblue (a Southern hybrid), Sunshine (another Southern high bush), and Ka-Bluey® (a Gurney's Seed & Nursery Company hybrid).

How to Plant
Blueberries favor a sunny location, in soil with a pH of 4.5 to 5.2. This is higher soil acidity than most places have naturally, so it's often necessary to alter the soil they are planted in. A soil test can tell you the natural acidity of your planting bed, and you can adjust the pH accordingly.
In my area, blueberries are best planted in fall or spring. When planting new blueberry bushes, dig a hole about 2-1/2 feet wide and 1 foot deep - blueberries are shallow-rooted. Amending my heavy clay soil was essential. A rule of thumb is to plant the bush at the height it was in its pot, filling the hole with a mix of peat moss (naturally acidic), bark mulch (for good drainage), and good organic soil, at a 1:1:1 ratio, along with a dose of powdered garden sulfur (more acidity). Keep separate blueberry bushes at least 5 feet apart. Since the roots are shallow, mulching with 2 to 4 inches of bark mulch or pine straw will help keep the plants evenly moist, protect the roots, and keep down weeds. It will decompose to add nutrients to the soil also, so mulch annually.

Caring for the Blueberry Bushes
I add a dose of garden sulfur to each blueberry bush as the growth starts in early spring. Fertilizers like organic Hollytone are high in acid, and good for use on blueberries once the plants are established. Blueberries are high nitrogen feeders, so a dose of cottonseed meal is also good. 

You might not need to prune for the first 2-3 years of growth. Pruning should be done in mid or late winter, depending on your location. Remove dead, diseased or damaged canes, as well as low, small fine twigs. Prune to open the center and allow light and good airflow - especially important in humid areas like mine. Prune canes which are older the 6 years, and other canes by about 1/3, to encourage branching. A healthy bush could continue to bear fruit for 20 years or more.
Flowering ajuga brings bees to the blueberry flowers too.

Increase pollination
I am convinced that my blueberries produce well because of the ground cover I have planted around them - not to mention the abundance of additional spring flowers in my gardens. The timing of the blueberry flowers, in April, coincides with the flowering of "ajuga" (aka bugleweed), a hardy low groundcover which sends up a purple-blue spike of flowers. The bees flock to the ajuga flowers and visit my blueberry bushes at the same time, so cross pollination occurs successfully.
The berries don't all ripen at the same time

Usually blueberries within one bunch don't all ripen at once; you have to pick and choose the darkest ones, being carefully not to damage the unripened berries. The ripest ones often look like they have a powdery coating, which wipes away to shiny deep blue. If they are still a little pink, they won't be so sweet. With early, middle, and late varieties, you can extend your harvesting over a period of many weeks. Mine began to ripen in mid June and I still have lots which need several more weeks to ripen. As with any plant, it's best not to harvest when the plants are wet from rain or irrigation, since diseases spread more easily in those conditions. I like to harvest blueberries on a dry morning, before the sun gets too hot. I picked 10 cups yesterday (not counting the ones I ate!) Of course, it's hard to resist munching on a handful anytime I'm working in the gardens.

How to freeze
It's recommended not to wash the blueberries before freezing. My preferred method is to lay a big towel out and dump the berries onto it, spreading them in a single layer. If you've picked them with stems attached, rolling them around on the towel will make the stems drop off. The towel will absorb any moisture on the berries too. Some people like to freeze them in a single layer on a flat tray or pan to keep them from sticking together, but I haven't found this necessary. I measure 2 cups of berries into a freezer pint zip bag, shake to move them into the bottom corners, squeeze the excess air out, and seal the bag. I try to maneuver the berries around in the bag to distribute them evenly, then I stack the bags in the freezer. If I want to use them in the future for baking, I usually don't thaw - just take from the freezer, rinse and add them to the dry ingredients in the recipe. Frozen blueberries are fabulous in smoothies too.

Other fruits and berries I have tried or still grow have much fussier requirements than blueberries. If you are just venturing into gardening, I highly recommend you include blueberries in your plans. They can even be grown in containers, so get yours growing soon!