Yummy Blueberries

By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura

The delectable flavor of these mighty powerhouses can be enjoyed eating in muffins, deserts, breads, jams, and juices. Just imagine them  sprinkled over a cream cheese fruit tart, cheesecake, over vanilla ice cream or just tossed in a fruit salad. There is a little secret I want to share with you, it happens to be found in a small, delicate, and round fruit that is often blue in color, it is called the Blueberry. This botanical wonder is loaded with Vitamin C, antioxidants, fiber, Manganese, Vitamin K, is known to improve brain health, and research is continually finding more and more health benefits to the wonderment of the this plump, juicy, and attractive fruit. The fruit is also attractive to birds. Best of all, you can plant them in your own yard with a little care and time you will be able to harvest fresh Blueberries and enjoy them for years to come.

Botanically, Blueberries fall under the genus name Vaccinium and are related to such common plants like the Manzanita, Azalea, Cranberry, Lingonberry, Huckleberry, Strawberry Tree, and Erica of which the plant family is named after, (Ericacea). The urn or bell shaped flowers blueberries posses are a rich source of nectar for bees while at the same time providing pollination of the flowers to become fruit.

Blueberries are so described as fruits contain many tiny, soft, and barely noticeable seeds. The fruits, which are often clustered, are pale greenish at first, then reddish-purple, and finally indigo on ripening. They have a sweet taste when mature, with variable acidity. Blueberries are not a really a berry at all botanically speaking. Instead they are a “ false berry” but but they look like a berry so it was stuck with the name for simplicity.

Blueberries love acid soil. If you must plant in the ground, it is highly suggested to use EB Stone Azalea Camellia Mix or some other type of acid planting mix which helps acidify the soil. Apply1/2 Camellia mix and 1/2 native soil, mix both together uniformly, spread the mixed soil around the root ball and pack it in thoroughly .If your soil is terrible clay then consider using the planting mix straight without mixing it with the ground soil.

When growing in containers (preferred method) you can also use the same mix straight without mixing native soil and follow the above procedure. As an alternative their are different recipes one can use that also yield good success. You may want to consider the following:

  • 1/3 pathway bark
  • 1/3 peat moss
  • 1/3 leaf mold or forest humus based potting soil
  • Mix together and add 2 tablespoons of soil sulfur
  • If you can’t remember the recipe you can always use the ready to use mix instead with
    equal success.

Blueberries should be planted in containers. They are more successful when grown in containers than in the ground. The reason being is because you can easier manage the soil and drainage better than in the ground. They need excellent, fast draining soil that is acidic, something moist our soils are lacking. Blueberries like consistent water but not continuously wet soil. If container growing is not your forte, plant them in raised beds or above ground planters. A simple way to have a raised bed is to create one with boards that are 6 to 12 inches above the ground, fill the planter with an acid mix, so the soil is above the original soil grade giving good air flow, drainage, and water penetration where your blueberries would grow more successfully.

It is highly recommended when planting Blueberries to position the crown so that it is no deeper than 1/2’’ below the soil. Here is a proven method for growing them in the containers:

  • For #1 gallon or equivalent plants put in #2 to #5 gallon containers.
  • For #2 or #5 gallon plants, choose a 16 to 20 inch pots.
  • Fill the bottom of your container with the soil mix and pack down to remove air pockets.
  • As an option, some people like to put crushed rocks or broken pottery on the bottom of
    the planter then put the soil mix on top of that for added drainage.
  • Place the Blueberry and continue to fill around root with the soil mix.

Blueberries like acid soil and fertilizer. When fertilizing your Blueberry plants be sure the fertilizer must not be nitrate form of nitrogen. Nitrate fertilizers (example is Miracle Gro) can be deadly to them. Check carefully when selecting fertilizers and look for sulfate or urea nitrogen. An example of an organic high-nitrogen fertilizer is blood meal. I suggest using an acidic fertilizer like Eb Stone Cottonseed Meal or other acid fertilizer according to label directions. Fertilizing should be done in early spring and in late spring once a month during the growing season. Fertilizing with any kind of manure yields unsuccessful results as it can damage the plants. Soil sulfur (sulfate nitrogen) can also be used as a supplement to aide in acidifying the soil. Blueberries prefer to have a ph that reads acid (between 5.0 and 5.5 and sometimes as low as 4.5 depending on the variety of Blueberry). To determine if your soil has the correct reading, I suggest to invest in a soil ph test kit. This tests whether your soil is acidic, neutral or basic. They also love a rich, organic soil, and plenty of mulch as a topdressing over the soil. Mulch is critically important for Blueberries because their roots are shallow and are easily exposed to over heating. The mulch cools the soil so the roots do not burn up. Ideally, it is best to supply a 3-5 inch layer of mulch that is top dressed over the soil, making sure the mulch does not touch the main stem of the plant. The mulch will naturally break down adding rich food for the soil, keep down competing weeds, reduce water evaporation, and adds a richness to the soil so the plant grows better. You may want to include earthworm castings, and humic acids to make the soil even better for your Blueberries. Mulching, fertilizers, and other additives to the soil needs to be done routinely at a minimum of once per year or more often especially in containers. Being that they have shallow roots means they also need adequate water. If you are having problems with plant vigor, they probably will trace back to too-high soil pH or inadequate watering. Blueberries require most of their water during blooming and fruiting. These plants like regular water but not water logged. They must have good drainage. They love the full sun, however if you live in particular hot inland desert area they require  partial sun instead.

When pruning your Blueberry plant it is best not to do it when they are dormant, during the winter, however you can prune in the winter or early spring by removing dead or damaged branches only. Your main pruning is done after harvest usually in June or July. When pruning, it is best to clean up dead branches, thin out small or spindly wood, and leave plenty of foliage so you do not get sunburn. Young plants will need minimum pruning. As the plant ages, prune out 1/3 of the older canes each year leaving new branches to fruit the following season. Pruning off dead wood or non-fruiting wood will allow the plant to put its energy into the good canes for maximizing fruit production. Blueberries bloom and fruit on old wood, so be sure that you don’t trim off too much of last season’s branches or it will negatively impact fruiting.

One of the main secrets to attaining a reliable crop is to have a buddy paired with them. They need to be cross pollinated with other varieties to have successful, consistent, and quality fruit. You need multiple varieties of early, mid season or late season Blueberries to pollinate one another. Even the varieties that are noted as self fruitful, they will produce more abundantly with another variety. Many of the self fruitful selections are good pollinators for other non self fruitful types. I will detail the most popular varieties below to aide in your selections.

With the right combinations, it is possible to have fresh and ripe blueberries in your yard from May to June for 6 weeks of crop. In many California climates, plants can bear from late spring through late summer, depending on the variety, microclimate and the particular year, often with a few fruit available almost all year. Coastal plantings of many varieties can be almost ever-bearing.

There is a special group of Blueberries that does exceptionally well in Southern California, they are called Southern High bushes. These Southern High bushes are hybrids (also known as Southern Hybrids) are developed for superior fruit, soil adaptability, heat tolerance, and are particularly suitable for coastal areas to hot inland land valleys of the region. These more adaptable varieties meet most of the requirements for growing in the western climates.

Early season types:
Misty Blueberry is an early Southern hybrid (May to early June) variety with narrow, upright habit and great vigor. Does well in coastal or inland areas, has an extended production season, and high yielding. The fruit is sky blue, medium to large, firm, sweet to spicy sweet. Chill requirement may be as low as 150 hours, is often more evergreen in mild climates, and better vigor in warm or hot-summer areas.

O’Neal Blueberry  This type is amongst the earliest of the varieties. It is possible to have fruit ripening as soon as January, even after hard freezes. O’Neal is a robust, fast grower, and considered to have the best flavor of any of the Southern Highbush types. This Blueberry has fruit has dark blue color, medium to large size berries, and grows to about 4-5′ tall, and a chill requirement stated 200 hours. You can grow it in very warm-winter climates. Has nice pink flowers and great fall color too. The fall color consists of purple, bronze then bright scarlet red and hot orange over yellow.

Jewel Blueberry is  the leading California commercial variety. The berries themselves are heavy-producing, large, light blue fruits with a tangy flavor that appear for early to mid season ripening meaning end of May into Mid-June. The plant is vigorous and grows on an upright plant to 5-6’ tall and 4-5′ wide. Jewell only needs 200-300 hours of chill. For pollination purposes you could use Jewell for both early and mid season types since it is right in the middle of the two.

Mid-season types:
Jubilee is an upright, fast, grower with firm berries appearing midseason. This variety has a reputation as a good producer in less than perfect conditions. It can sometimes produce two crops. Jubilee offers medium-sized, sky-blue, very sweet berries, with a moderately low chill requirement and good heat tolerance. Handsome blue-green foliage with bright red-orange fall color, on an upright, spreading form. Recommended winter chill is 500 hours or less and very adaptable . Plant with another midseason variety to improve yield.

Emerald Blueberry This cultivar is another midseason selection that grows 4-5′ tall and especially good fall color for a Southern Hybrid variety. Heaviest crops with another variety for cross-pollination. Estimated 150-250 chill hours required. Emerald is a variety from Florida and bears extremely heavy crops of large, sweet and flavorful, medium-blue berries. Great for growers in the Northwest, it is also a superior variety for California and other regions with mild winters.

Reveille is harvested midseason. Its fruit is medium sized that has a pleasing, crunchy texture, crisp, and excellent flavor. Chilling hours are listed at 400-500 hours but adaptable. Hot pink blooms cover the bush in spring, giving way to loads of light blue berries. This vigorous plant grows upright and narrow to 5 to 6 feet tall and thrives in hot or cool coastal climates.

Sunshine Blue Blueberry Overwhelmingly this our most popular variety for several reasons: heavy bearing, the fruits are firm and sweet, and self- fruitful. Sunshine Blue is compact growing to around 3 feet tall with blue-green attractive foliage. This selection is more of an evergreen Blueberry that does not loose all of its leaves during the wintertime. The small, dainty, urn shaped flowers are hot pink that fade to white in spring followed by medium size fruit. This variety can actually can tolerate a soil that has higher ph level( less acidic ) than other Southern High bushes. Being a midseason cultivar (approx. end of May to mid June), Sunshine Blue is a good pollinator for other mid season varieties.

Top Hat Blueberry is a Northern Highbush hybrid of a lowbush. Another dwarf section like Sunshine Blue but smaller, only growing to 16-24" tall. Medium, firm, sweet, light blue berries that last for several weeks. Good flavor. Completely covered with white, bell shaped flowers for several weeks. Great fall color. Self-fruitful.

Later season types:
Jelly Bean® Blueberry  offers you medium to large flavorful berries that resembles the taste of blueberry jelly. Harvest in mid-summer. Unique, elongated leaves make a compact grower. Self-fruitful. Estimated chill requirement 600 hours or less and very adaptable to more mild conditions .U.S. plant patent no. 24662.

Pink Lemonade’Blueberry provides you with fruit in spring and summer. The unique fruit is an attractive deep pink through dark coral red berries. It shouldn’t really be called a Blueberry because it is not blue however it can be used as contrast with other blue varieties. As the weather cools down in the fall, the foliage turns an orange to red color for an added bonus. Pink Lemonade is an upright, fast grower, 4-5′ tall (or more) and about as wide. Only needs about 150 hours of chill. This selection is a hybrid of a Rabbiteye and Southern Highbush with a unique, sprightly, sweet flavor, highly desired by dessert chefs.

All in all Blueberries are simple, fun for children to pick, and nutritious to eat. Southern Highbush Blueberries are useful as a landscape plant that provides fall color, decorative fruit, handsome foliage, and you can even grow taller types with support on a trellis if you have a limited space. It is also encouraging to note that most Blueberries are adaptable where they can produce lots of fruit, grow successfully out of their own range or tolerance level dispute what published information says. I have personally seen and experienced Blueberries (Northern Highbush) that are not recommended to grown in our mild area do very well. Remember their are exceptions to the rule, microclimates, and adaptability all play a factor. I encourage you to plant Blueberries, and harvest healthy homegrown fruit. On occasion when Blueberry plants arrive with ripe fruit on them here at the nursery, I can’t help myself but to grab a few and munch on them which puts a smile on my face, this further entices me to add Blueberry plants to my own personal landscape planted in nice pots sometime instead of store bought, however I can’t resist topping dried Blueberries on cereal in the morning. It would be wise to call ahead and check for current availability of these popular plants. We would be happy help you be successful in growing Blueberries.

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