Tips to plant, maintain a blueberry bush
by Nan Sterman
When I was working on my botany degree in North Carolina, my classmates and I spent many a day wandering through the pine forests. In spring, we always carried buckets for picking wild blueberries.
As a California kid, I was amazed to discover that blueberries grew on bushes in the wild. I also learned that edible blueberries are native to boggy areas with acidic soils all along the East Coast and west out to Texas.
When I returned to California, I assumed that my blueberry picking days were over. After all, we have an arid climate where soils are nutrient poor and basic, while our winters are mild. Not exactly blueberry growing conditions. As it turned out, however, blueberry breeders were already working on varieties to grow under our conditions.
In the late 1980s, rabbit eye blueberries appeared in California nurseries. Of course, I had to grow them and they did OK, but just for a few years before they pooped out.
Almost a decade later, southern highbush varieties appeared on the market as "next generation" blueberries for California. The earliest varieties weren't as prolific as the wild blueberries, but they did well enough to justify a spot in my garden. In recent years, newer varieties have arrived, many of which out-produce their predecessors. They're also more attractive, so you get the double benefit of fruit and beauty.
All blueberries are deciduous shrubs in the genus Vaccinium. Southern highbush varieties grow between 3 and 6 feet tall and wide. In fall, their leaves turn red and yellow before dropping. Although native blueberries prefer shade, southern highbush varieties do fine in full sun along the coast and with only afternoon shade inland.
Spring brings small white flowers that become dark blue berries. Southern highbush blueberries seem to do best in large pots where we can more easily emulate the acidic soils the fruit prefers.
Tips to plant and maintain a blueberry bush
Use at least a 20-inch-tall plastic pot — not black, because that gets too hot. Fill each pot with a handful of soil sulfur added to a mixture of one-third small pathway bark, one-third peat moss and one-third forest humus-based potting soil.
Set blueberry plants at the same height they were in their nursery containers. If you plant bare root blueberries — which is best — look for the soil line on the main stem. Plant only that deep. Water well after planting then mulch the pot to help keep soil moist at all times. Drip irrigation helps keep blueberries' shallow roots moist and its leaves dry.
Fertilize in late spring before harvest and again in late winter before flowering. Choose a fertilizer for acid loving plants (such as azaleas and camellias), or make a mix of one part cottonseed meal to one part fishmeal.
In the first spring, pick off flowers so plants put their energy into establishing good roots and branches. After harvest the second year, cut the new growth back by half, no more. Remove branches more than 3 years old, as well as dead or diseased wood.
For maximum fruiting, plant two or more varieties. For early summer fruit, try "O'Neal" or "Sharpblue." For midsummer to fall fruits, plant "Georgia gem" or "Jubilee.
Nan Sterman is author of "California Gardener's Guide Volume II." She's a gardening expert, communicator and designer who has long grown an organic garden of plants that both feed her family and beautify her yard. SFlbSFlb