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Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Small Fruits & Berries

Blueberry Prescription

by Lee Reich

Talk about an easy fruit! Backyard blueberries have few -- often no -- insect or disease problems. The bushes are easy to prune. No need to harvest crawling on your knees (as with strawberries) or fighting thorns (as with brambles). And no need to replant (ever), because a blueberry bush will live 50, maybe 100 or more, years.

Best of all is the flavor; fully ripened blueberries have sweetness and aroma that store-bought blueberries cannot match. Backyard blueberries can hang on the bushes for a few days after they first turn blue, and this allows time for their flavor to really soar.

Okay, blueberries are easy, but success with this fruit still requires attention to three details: variety, soil, and birds.

In contrast to most fruits that you find in the market, the blueberry is a native shrub, growing wild along the East coast, in parts of the Upper Midwest, and in the Pacific Northwest. The blueberry is also a market upstart, with breeding and the first commercial plantings initiated only in the early part of the twentieth century. To their credit breeders have created varieties adapted beyond their native ranges, so that nowadays you can grow blueberries just about anywhere in the United States and many parts of Canada.

Kinds of Blueberries

Blueberries are partially self-fertile, which means they bear some fruit without cross-pollination. But when at least two different varieties grow near each other, yield is higher and fruits are larger. Planting more than one variety can also stretch out the harvest season for several weeks. Before narrowing your choices to specific varieties, choose which type or types of blueberries are best suited to your climate.

Lowbush. The most cold-hardy blueberries are lowbush types (Vaccinium angustifolium, USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 6), growing no more than about 8 to 18 inches high. Snowfall covering these low shrubs protects them from winter cold. Plants spread by underground runners to form a solid mat of plants which -- with their dainty, bell-like flowers in spring, and fiery red leaf color in fall -- make an attractive ground cover.

Native Americans enjoyed lowbush blueberries long before European settlers arrived. Although a few named varieties exist, nurseries mostly sell unnamed seedlings. Many commercial plantings consist of wild plants encouraged to grow in much the same way as the Native Americans grew them. Lowbush blueberry fruits typically are about 1/4 inch in diameter, very sweet, and covered with a powdery blue bloom.

Highbush. Most fresh-market blueberries are the highbush type (V. corymbosum), so named for the 6-foot-high plants on which they are borne. Northern and southern subtypes of highbush blueberries are available. Some popular northern varieties include 'Bluecrop', 'Blue Ray', and 'Earliblue', adapted for zones 4 through 7. Southern highbush types do best in zones 7 through 10 and include varieties such as 'Gulf Coast', 'Misty', 'O'Neal', and 'Reveille'. 'Sharpblue' can grow in zones 7 through 11. Compared to lowbush berries, the fruits are large: 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter.

Rabbiteye. These blueberries (V. ashei) are native to the Southeast and so are heat-tolerant (zones 7, 8, and 9). The bushes grow 10 or more feet tall, and the 1/2- to 1-inch fruits have a thick skin that helps them hang well on the bush, even in the heat, to develop full flavor. For good cross-pollination, plant two or more varieties with bloom seasons that coincide; 'Beckyblue' and 'Bonitablue', or 'Powderblue' and 'Tifblue', for example.

Half-high. In recent years, some of the best qualities of both highbush and lowbush blueberries have been combined into what are known as half-high blueberries. These varieties have size and flavor qualities that are between those of their parents, and generally do not spread by runners. Half-high varieties such as 'Chippewa', 'Northblue', and 'Northland' are hardy into zone 3.

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