Blueberry bush (Vaccinium ) Vitis vinifera L. is one of the most popular plants in America. It grows naturally in all kinds of soils and climates, but it prefers moist soil with some moisture content. The plant produces large clusters of small berries which are edible when ripe, or they can be used like a dessert topping for pies and other desserts. They have been cultivated since ancient times for their delicious flavor and medicinal properties. There are many varieties of blueberry bushes. Some of them produce only black berries while others produce white and purple ones. The berries vary in size, shape, color and texture. Most types of blueberries contain at least 50% anthocyanins (colorless to pinkish-red flavonoids) which may help prevent cancer and heart disease. Blueberries are very high in vitamin C , which helps fight infections such as colds and flu . Vitamin C is also helpful in preventing blood clots and improving circulation. The berries are rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese and phosphorus. They are low in fat and cholesterol. A single cup of fresh blueberries contains over 150 calories and 1 gram of carbohydrate. The leaves contain antioxidants called flavonols that protect against certain cancers . Blueberries can help prevent coronary heart disease and cancer . Blueberries are thought to improve verbal memory in older people. The antioxidants called anthocyanins decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia . Blueberries are a good source of soluble fiber. Soluble fiber absorbs water and helps slow down the absorption of sugar into the blood stream. This may help control blood-sugar levels and assist in weight loss and maintenance. Black bears eat the berries and then their feces provide a seed bed for new plants. The berries grow better in acidic soils and they also help to acidify the soil. If you have neutral or alkaline soil, you can lightly spray the soil with apple cider vinegar to lower the pH. Blueberries are an important commercial crop in many parts of the globe, including the United States, Canada, England, Spain, Australia, Chile and Japan. The berries are usually picked by hand. For the commercial crop, the plants are often grown in raised beds to facilitate easy picking. Blueberry bushes are prone to many diseases and insects . They are susceptible to fungal leaf spots, crown and root rots, anthracnose, gray mold, and twig blights. They can be infested by aphids, lace bugs, leafhoppers, mealy bugs, mites and sawfly larvae. They can also be afflicted by viruses. Proper crop rotation, keeping the plants free of weeds, mulching and regular application of fertilizer are all ways of keeping your blueberry bushes healthy. If there is an infestation of insects or disease, a pesticide or insecticide may be needed. To prevent the spread of disease and infection, don’t plant your blueberry bushes too close together. To prevent ground rot, plant your bushes so that there is a minimum of six feet between each plant. Blueberries are a favorite food of deer and rabbits, so you may need to fence them in or plant them somewhere the animals cannot reach them.
Well water tends to be acidic, so if you use well water to water your blueberries, you should add lime to the soil to counteract the acidity. Today, most blueberries are grown using irrigated water from wells or city water sources which makes the addition of lime unnecessary. City water supplies usually add a sufficient amount of lime to the water to make it alkaline. Blueberry plants prefer an acidic soil ph of 4.5 to 5.5.
You can have your soil tested by a professional to determine whether or not you need to add lime to your soil. Incorporate the recommended amount of hydrated lime into the soil prior to planting your nursery plants or seeds. To increase the acidity of alkaline soil, incorporate ground sulfur into the soil at a rate of 25 pounds per 100 square feet. You can also duplicate the effects of fertilizer by adding apple trees leaves to your soil. Apple tree leaves contain an abundance of calcium carbonate which will help to neutralize soil that is too acidic. To increase the acidity one degree (if your soil tests at 7.0, you want it to be 6.0), add one handful (approximately 0.5 ounce) of apple tree leaves per square foot of soil surface area. Wet the soil thoroughly after adding the leaves and keep the area lightly damp for at least a week before planting your seeds or nursery plants.
You can grow blueberries in containers. This is especially helpful if you don’t have much space. The largest size container that is generally recommended is a fourteen-gallon pot. You can use a half whiskey barrel with the bottom cut out as a container.
(Cut just the bottom off, not the sides.) Add a bottom to your container if you don’t have one. This will increase the amount of soil your shrub has to grow in and allow you to add more fertilizer and organic matter. Be sure to add a hole in the bottom for the water to drain out of.
Sow your seeds or plant your shrubs in the early spring. Try to space your shrubs out so that there is at least six feet between each shrub. If you are planting your shrubs in a row, three feet is probably close enough. Fertilize with compost or manure tea before you plant your shrubs and mulch with approximately 4 inches of wood chips.
Keep the area around your shrubs well watered until they are well established.
Blueberries will grow in a variety of soil types as long as they aren’t waterlogged. They prefer soils that are low in organic matter so add compost or rotted manure to your soil before planting. Blueberries require acidic soil with a pH between 4.5 and 5.5.
If your soil is too alkaline, you can deduct alkalai from the soil by adding aluminum sulfate. (Use aluminum sulfate only if you know what you are doing. The chemical can be dangerous and should not be used by people without a chemistry background) You can also use oak leaves or pine needles to make your soil more acidic.
You can grow blueberries in containers as long as you choose the right size container. A ten-gallon container is good for a single shrub. You can also grow a few shrubs together in a twenty-gallon container or, if you want to grow a lot of shrubs together, you could use a thirty-gallon container or larger.
Choose a sunny location and prepare the soil by adding 4 inches of organic matter. (Manure, shredded tree bark, compost, etc. Avoid using grass clippings, they tend to be too wet) Prepare the soil in the spring and then sow the seeds in the fall. If you are sowing in the fall wait until October.
Cover the seeds with soil and keep the area damp.
You can actually cover your container with a wooden box with holes in it or a wooden tub that has low sides (so you can easily slide the shrubs out). These covered containers will help protect your shrubs from extreme weather conditions. Be sure to add some drainage holes to the bottom of the container.
Keep the area under and around your shrubs mulched. (A thick layer of wood chips will work nicely) This will help keep the soil cool and protect it from weed growth. Don’t use grass clippings, they tend to be too wet.
In the spring, right after the last frost, you should prune your shrub back by about a third. Keep the prunings for a nutrient rich soil amendment or to add to your compost pile.
After your shrubs are up and growing, you need to fertilize them yearly. Fertilize in the early spring using a good granular fertilizer. (Fish emulsion is organic and works well.) Follow the directions on the package for the amount to use.
Do not fertilize the following year, this will allow the soil to replenish its nutrients.
NOTE: Native blueberries (such as those found in Maine or Canada) are hardy in most of the United States. If you live in a warmer climate zone, such as zone 7 or above, you can plant the native varieties. The other type of blueberry commonly grown is the high bush variety, these will not grow well in warmer zones.
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Sources & references used in this article:
Root respiration and soil aeration status of blueberries (Vaccinium SP.) by RF Korcak – Journal of Plant Nutrition, 1983 – Taylor & Francis
Blueberry nutrition on upland soils by M Pritts – New York Fruit Quarterly, 2000 – nyshs.org
The highbush blueberry and its management by S Myles – 2002 – Sceptre
Establishment and maintenance of rabbiteye blueberries by RE Gough – 1993 – books.google.com
BLUEBERRIES: ORGANIC PRODUCTION by JM Spiers, JH Braswell, CP Hegwood Jr – 1985 – ir.library.msstate.edu
Northern highbush blueberry cultivars differed in yield and fruit quality in two organic production systems from planting to maturity by HP GUIDE – 2004 – greatpacificbioproducts.com