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More Blueberries, Please


I have been adding blueberry bushes to my home landscape. There they sit among the other hardy shrubs, neat and pretty with their small green leaves on densely mounded plants; and providing clusters of delicious blue fruit in addition to looking good.

In the fall the shiny leaves turn bright red. In spring there are clusters of white, bell-shaped flowers. The fruits have a whitish, waxy bloom that adds to their good looks.

In some ways, blueberry bushes look and act like their azalea relatives in the family Ericaceae, a group of plants that includes cranberries. Blueberries and cranberries are native to the U.S. but now are grown around the world. If you have the kind of moist, acidic soil that lets you grow azaleas without much effort, you’ll have good results with blueberries using the same methods. Grow them in sun or part sun and part shade. They take little or no pruning. You should fertilize them somewhat more than azaleas because producing all that fruit takes energy away from the plants. And they love compost.

Like azaleas and rhododendrons, blueberries come in different sizes and types including knee-high or shorter dwarf bushes and taller types up to eight feet.

Breeders have caught on to the fact that the garden appearance of blueberries is important to consumers, and have come up with ornamental yet edible new crosses between the tall highbush types (northern and southern) and the shorter, wider, lowbush or wild types. The highbush types are heat tolerant but some are not so cold tolerant. The lowbush types thrive from the Mid-Atlantic up into the inhabitable parts of northern Canada. There are also rabbiteye blueberries, mostly grown in Florida and the South, and these are the tallest. The fruit is bland and not so smooth. The best of these combo plants seem ready for climate turbulence and unpredictable heat and cold.

Some of these new crosses offer berries in startling shades of pink and purple, along with the usual blue. Last summer I added a hot pink-fruited type, “Pink Lemonade,” to several blue-fruited types I’m already growing. I hope to see the berries this summer, though perhaps they will be too pretty to eat. Another recent cultivar is “Summer Sunset” with multicolored berries, going from green to red to red-purple and finally to black. “Tophat” with blue berries and an ornamental form was introduced 30 years ago and is still a strong seller.

Deer will eat the blueberry bush branches as well as the berries, so I drape the plants with garlic grass in the spring to help divert the deer to someone else’s garden. This method is not as decorative as it could be, but deer follow their habits so I don’t have to do that all summer.

Deer will eat azaleas and rhododendrons, so the problem is the same. Birds go after the berries but a temporary covering with black nylon bird netting keeps them off. Lots of critters including squirrels enjoy blueberries, so plant enough to share.

Years ago, I lived near a lady who had quite a large, wide blueberry bush, about five feet tall, totally loaded with tiny dark blueberries, much smaller than the kind we see in stores. They were a bother to pick, but not for her toy poodle, who would stand on her little hind legs and bite off the berries. Last summer, on a side street in central Manhattan, I saw handsome blueberry bushes loaded with lovely ripe fruit next to a brick church, behind a wrought iron fence. The city birds had not figured this out and the berries were untouched.

The blueberries sold years ago were mainly harvested from the wild, especially from the Pine Barrens area, and were pea-sized, tart, aromatic, and strongly flavored. In my long-ago childhood my mother would drive us kids, smeared with mosquito repellant, to sandy places inland from the shore where we would pick enough wild blueberries for pies and pancakes with our tiny fingers.

The berries harvested commercially today are cultivated varieties with marble-sized, mild, but still delicious and healthful berries.

The blueberry plants that you are likely to find at garden centers are mainly hybrids chosen for good berry size, flavor, and plant form. Most are highbush types or are crosses including highbush types. A good nursery near your home will have plant selections that should do well in your garden. For better pollination and better crops, plant two different types that bloom at the same time. Berry and fruit plant dealers can be found online, and there are mail order suppliers, too.

Nutritionally, blueberries offer vitamins C and E, trace minerals and antioxidants, and fiber. There are studies showing promising health benefits including metabolizing sugar, but this involves eating many servings per week or drinking blueberry juice. Frozen blueberries retain most of the vitamins and other goodies, but cooked ones do not. The fresher the berries, the more healthful they are.

Eating lots of blueberries is said to help preserve good vision and a good memory. It takes the bushes at least a few years to reach their fully productive sizes; if you plant blueberries instead of more azaleas now, they will mature along with you and be there when you need them!