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Hamptons Life

Feb 5, 2018 12:41 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Blueberries For Everyone

Feb 5, 2018 1:43 PM

Continuing on last week’s teaser about blueberries: For home use, you can grow lowbush and highbush cultivars, ranging in heights from 2 to 8 feet tall, as hedges, individual bushes lined or in rows, and there are even a couple of varieties that lend themselves well to being grown in pots. The foliage can be open or dense and well-branched, light green or quite dark, depending on your needs and taste and the varieties planted.There also is a wide range of shapes available for specimen plants. These might range from the beautiful 48-inch-by-36-inch Avonblue, with its lush foliage and dense habit, to the dwarf ornamental Tophat, with its delicate foliage and globe-shaped habit, which seldom reaches 24 inches in height.

On the other end, there are the Northern Highbush “standards,” which are open in habit and reach 6 to 8 feet in height, for growers who want their berries borne on a privacy hedge.

For most of you, it is the highbush blueberry that you’ll be after, and you’ll find that with a few simple guidelines these are really easy plants to grow.

By choosing early, middle and late season varieties, you can extend your harvesting season well beyond the usual two weeks or so to more like two months—but remember that two varieties must be planted if self-fertile types are not used, and it will take more than two varieties for a really extended harvest.

Keep in mind that most blueberries, especially the highbush, are swamp or bog plants, just like their close relatives the cranberry. Unlike the lowbush, the highbush types need not only a very acidic soil but a boggy one also. This can be accomplished by adding several cubic feet of sphagnum peat moss to the planting hole soil, combined with compost, remembering that a mature plant will have a root zone that will be at least 12 inches deep and as much as 2 feet wide. Planting in low spots—at the bottom of hills where runoff is caught, and in landscape depressions—also can be advantageous.

Virtually all highbush blueberries are extremely cold tolerant and will endure 25 below zero without problems. On the other hand, if you want some measure of protection, you may want to consider Patriot or Blueray, which will be fine down to minus-40 degrees. At the same time, when the cold is gone, these plants need plenty of sun, but you might get by with some shade in the summer.

Plants can be ordered from a number of mail-order nurseries, including Burpee (burpee.com), which has as many as 40 varieties. However, mail order plants will be small and can take three to five years to mature to the point where you’ll be picking pints per plant.

An alternative is to ask at local nurseries to see if they will have larger potted or container plants available. These larger plants can be harvestable in just a year but will cost substantially more up front. An alternate scheme would be to buy both potted and bare root plants to cut the cost but still give you a sizable berry patch that will mature over several years.

Once you’ve chosen a location and ordered plants, as soon as the soil is workable, you should dig a hole at least 12 inches deep by 24 inches wide, and mix all of the soil with the requisite amount of peat moss and compost. Plant the shrub so that it sits in the hole at the same depth that it was in the pot, or as per the included instructions, and gently fill in around the roots. Remember that the plant may settle as much as 2 inches after planting—but planting too deep is usually fatal.

In most cases, the potted plants that you buy will have large root systems, so it is not advisable to do any pruning, as you might with a bare root plant. Once planted, keep the plants well watered, because though they are hardy and tough, they will not withstand droughts without some help, especially in their first year.

For the hedge lovers out there, you can pick from a number of varieties of blueberries that will give you fine growing characteristics, as well as good fruits. With white flowers in spring and brilliant foliage in the fall, they really can’t be beat.

In this category, well call them compact hedge varieties (up to 5 feet tall), look for Avonblue (self-fertile), Patriot, Bluehaven, O’Neal (self-fertile), Cape Fear and Blue Ridge.

For a larger, more open or informal hedge, consider Duke, Collins, Bluejay, Bluecrop and Blueray. At the top of the line, from 5 to 6 feet, you’ll find Elliot, Jersey, Berkeley and Darrow … all of which are late-season fruiters.

Don’t add any fertilizer at planting. In fact, wait a full year before you feed your plants, and when you do, use a fertilizer that’s blended for acid-loving plants. An organic choice would be Hollytone, although there are others.

Feed early in the spring, when the soil has reached 50 degrees, and just once. Also, keep your bed or patch mulched to control weeds. Pine bark mulch or pine needle mulch is perfect, because they are both on the acid side and will decompose slowly.

It may be painful, but young plants (not potted plants) should not be allowed to flower. I know—you want your berries—but by not allowing the young bare-root plants to flower, by picking off the flowers in the first and second year, you’ll encourage a much deeper and stronger root system. You can cheat and leave a few flowers on each plant, resulting in a few berries, and then you’ll know what you’re in for a few years ahead.

You should also read up on pruning your plants, because the best berries are produced on plants that are regularly pruned. It’s really easy—here’s a link to a factsheet that has all the details, including diagrams and instructions: http://bit.ly/2DNAYwR.

Once your plants start to bear fruit, you probably will want to protect these blue gems from the hungry birds with good taste. This is simple. Most garden centers sell inexpensive bird netting, which can be easily draped over the shrub until you’re ready to harvest. After you finish your picking, just remove the netting and store it for next year … or move it to your cherry tree.

Order your plants online now, or ask around at local garden centers to see what they’ll have available in the spring. Find the perfect planting spot, and get the area ready as soon as the ground is workable, and do the planting as soon as the plants arrive or are available.

It’s a project that may take a couple of years to be fruitful, but you’ll never, ever regret it.

Keep growing!

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