Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
August, 2008
Regional Report

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Blueberries belong in the ornamental garden as well as the edible garden.

Enjoy Months of Blueberries

"Taste one," the grower urged as I eyed a cluster of plump blueberries recently. The plant was labeled 'Aurora'. I plucked what looked like the bluest, ripest of the bunch and popped it into my mouth, which puckered immediately.

"Tart?" asked the grower. I nodded, unpleasantly surprised. "They need to stay on the bush a little longer," he surmised. How much longer? The longer on the bush, the sweeter they get, he said. That's no help, I thought. Two days, two weeks?

Seems birds are the best barometers. They know exactly when to pick the blue beauties. Which is why anyone who successfully grows berries knows about netting their crop before critters take more than their fair share.

Fresh blueberries warm from a New Jersey farm stand are my favorite. Spoon them over chunks of fragrant, ripe cantaloupe. Heavenly! Plus, we all know blueberries have antioxidants. They're rated 100 out of 100 in Yale's new Overall Nutritional Quality Index based on nutrients, vitamins, and health impact.

Why plant privet, inkberry, holly, juniper, or boxwood when you can grow blueberries instead? In cold climes, hardy blueberry varieties are deciduous. They have small, white or pinkish white flowers in spring before fruiting. Ornamentally speaking, their colorful fall foliage varies according to cultivar -- fiery reds, yellow, vibrant orange. Some have red stems, others yellow. In warmer areas such as Florida and Georgia, the huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) and shiny or ground blueberry (Vaccinium myrsinites) are evergreen.

Planting Different Varieties is Key
'Aurora' is a late-fruiting (August-September) highbush blueberry, explained Harold Sweetman, owner of Octoraro Farm and Gardens in Nottingham, Pennsylvania. They grow 15 blueberry varieties -- highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum), half-high (Vaccinium corymbosum hybrids), and lowbush (Vaccinium angustifolium) -- that fruit over four months.

For the Mid-Atlantic Hardy Plant Society's Gardeners' Market Sale in Valley Forge, Octoraro also brought the highbush 'Brigitta', which fruits in August, and a ground-hugging, lowbush cultivar. Plus lingonberry with its red, cranberry-like fruit.

Highbush blueberries reach 5 to 8 feet tall -- easy for adults to harvest, Sweetman said. At 3 to 4 feet, half-highs are child-friendly for picking. Ideal for ornamental use in gardens and landscapes, I thought. 'Polaris', 'Chippewa', and 'Friendship' are half-highs, cold hardy in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 7. The upright, spreading 'Polaris' ripens early and produces best when cross-pollinated. The compact 'Chippewa' fruits in midseason. 'Friendship' fruits late in the season.

"There's no one perfect blueberry," said Sweetman. For New Jersey machine picking, farmers plant 'Elliot', 'Blue Crop', and 'Blue Ray', which ripen simultaneously. The gardener and homeowner who handpick can have blueberries from July through September by planting a variety of cultivars. Though most blueberries self-pollinate, they have sweeter, larger fruits when they cross-pollinate, Sweetman added.

"If you can grow azaleas, you can grow blueberries," Sweetman told shoppers. Members of the Ericaceae family, they both like acidic soil (4.5 to 5.5 pH). Blueberries, though, thrive in sun rather than shade. They're shallow-rooted (roots extend only 6 to 12 inches deep) and require well-drained yet moist soil high in organic material. Mulch with pine straw or shredded leaves.

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