Grow your own blueberries!

Consumer demand for this tasty little fruit has increased significantly in recent years, fueled in part by research that has shown blueberries to be one of the best food sources of health-protecting antioxidants.

Blueberries are easy to grow in home gardens, and there are types of blueberries adapted to growing in just about every region. Once established, a modest patch of blueberry bushes will keep your family stocked with fresh and frozen berries all year. Blueberry plants are also highly ornamental, providing pretty white urn-shaped flowers in spring and glossy green leaves that turn stunning shades of red in the fall.

Varieties

Blueberries are in the genus Vaccinium, a large group of plants that also includes cranberry and lingonberry. Dozens of Vaccinium species are native throughout the United States and Canada, but only a few are important for fruit production.

Highbush blueberry(V. corymbosum, Zones 4 to 7) is the main blueberry species grown for fresh fruit. Native to much of the eastern United States and Canada, highbush blueberry is a multistemmed shrub that grows 6 to 12 feet tall. Many cultivars (selected for better production and fruit quality) are available. Blueberries produce more fruit when they cross-pollinate, so plant several different cultivars with similar bloom times together. If you want to pick fresh berries for several months, plant early, mid- season, and late-season blueberries.

Try early cultivars such as ‘Earliblue', ‘Patriot', and ‘Bluetta'; mid-season types like ‘Bluecrop', ‘Blueray', and ‘Sierra'; and late-season selections such as ‘Nelson', ‘Elliott', and ‘Jersey'.

Lowbush blueberry (V. angustifolium, Zones 2 to 6) is a spreading, low-growing shrub that grows no taller than 2 feet. This cold-hardy species grows from Maine to Minnesota and in eastern Canada. Lowbush blueberries tolerate poor, sandy soil and drier conditions than highbush blueberries.

The berries, which are often called wild blueberries, are small but flavorful and are harvested for products like canned blueberries, jams, fillings, and syrups.

bHalf-high blueberry (V. spp., Zones 3 to 7) is a hybrid between highbush and lowbush blueberries. They combine the cold-hardiness of lowbush blueberries with the larger fruit size of highbush blueberries. Their size (generally 2 to 4 feet tall, depending on cultivar) and excellent fall foliage color make them ideal for landscaping, along with the bonus of tasty fruit.

Cultivars include ‘Chippewa', ‘Northcountry', ‘Northblue', ‘Polaris', and ‘Top Hat'.

Rabbiteye blueberry (V. virgatum [formerly V. ashei], Zones 7 to 9) is native to the southeastern United States. This large shrub grows 8 to 15 feet tall and tolerates drier soils and higher heat and humidity than highbush blueberry.

Cultivars include ‘Austin', ‘Alapaha', ‘Tifblue', ‘Powderblue', ‘Climax', and ‘Briteblue'.

Southern highbush blueberry (V. spp., Zones 5 to 8) is a group of hybrids between highbush blueberry and several southern blueberry species, including rabbiteye. They deliver the higher fruit quality of highbush blueberries with the heat tolerance (and lower winter chill requirement) of the southern species.

Cultivars include ‘O'Neal', ‘Cooper', ‘Jewel', and ‘Sapphire'.

Planting

Blueberries flower and fruit best in full sun, though they'll tolerate partial shade. Remove flowers the first year blueberries are planted; this allows more of the plant's energy to go into root development and establishment.

Soil is critical to blueberries' success; it needs to be very acidic (pH 4.0 to 5.5), contain a lot of organic matter, and be evenly moist but not soggy. Have your soil tested, then add organic matter (compost, peat moss, composted leaves) and adjust the pH with sulfur as needed several months before planting.

For neutral to alkaline soils (pH 7.0 and higher), it's difficult to adequately lower pH. In that case, consider growing blueberries in containers or raised beds filled with a blend of peat moss, sand, and acidified soil.

Maintenance

Blueberries have few problems with insects or diseases, which makes it easy to grow them pesticide-free. That's also beneficial to bumblebees and other pollinators, which are essential for blueberry fruit production.

The biggest challenge for gardeners may be birds, which like to eat blueberries as much as we do. Use flexible bird netting or a movable frame covered with wire mesh fencing to protect the crop, and plant a few blueberries elsewhere in the yard just for the birds.

Mulch blueberries with 2 to 3 inches of pine needles, compost, shredded leaves, or other organic matter to help keep the shallow roots moist and protected. Water as needed during dry spells. (This is especially important for highbush types.) Fertilize lightly in spring with an ammonium-type nitrogen fertilizer such as ammonium sulphate. Test your soil every few years to determine whether it needs additional phosphorus or potassium.

For the taller types of blueberries, encourage fruiting by pruning out older stems (those that are more than six years old, or about 1 inch in diameter) in late winter. Also, remove any broken or weak branches. Lowbush blueberries can be cut back nearly to the ground every few years to encourage vigorous new fruiting stems.

Harvest

Blueberries change from green to pinkish and finally deep blue at maturity (though an exception is ‘Pink Lemonade', an unusual new hybrid blueberry with mature fruits that are bright pink). Blueberries should be fully colored for best flavor, so peek at all sides of the fruit before picking. Harvest blueberries every few days as they ripen.

Fresh blueberries will keep well for several weeks in the refrigerator. Whole blueberries also freeze beautifully. Rinse the berries, then let them dry thoroughly. (I like to spread them out on a cotton dish towel.)

Put a single layer of berries into a shallow rimmed pan, put the pan in the freezer for several hours (until the berries are frozen solid), then pour frozen berries into zip-top freezer bags and return bags to the freezer. Once thawed, frozen blueberries are a little too mushy for fresh eating, but they are perfect for smoothies, muffins, pancakes, dessert sauces, and cakes.

Landscaping With Blueberries

Whether you're planning an edible landscape or just want a pretty shrub with multiseason interest, blueberries fit the bill.

Taller-growing blueberries make a nice border or group planting, while half-highs look great edging a walkway or patio. Lowbush blueberries make a handsome ground cover, especially in naturalized areas or sites with sandy, nutrient-poor soils.

If you already have acidic soil—or are able to modify the pH in a large planting bed— combine blueberries with other acid-loving shrubs such as azaleas, rhododendrons, mountain laurel, Japanese pieris, heaths and heathers, fothergilla, bayberry, camellias, and many hollies.

And of course, blueberries are a perfect addition to bird- friendly gardens—they'll be a hit with robins, waxwings, bluejays, catbirds, and other fruit-loving birds.

Nancy Rose is horticultural consultant for Gardening How-To.