It is strange to think, but the blueberry is a fairly recent addition to the New Zealand diet. It certainly wasn’t around when I was growing up in the early 70’s. Now it’s the ‘go to’ berry for muffins and a handy snack in the lunchbox. It is a fabulous source of antioxidants and fibre, easy to grow in the home garden, and certainly a lot cheaper than other berries!
Best planted in spring through autumn, blueberries prefer full sun, but at a push will handle a little shade for some of the day. What they dislike are wet roots, so heavy clay soil is not suitable and may cause root rot. If perfect drainage is a problem in your garden, plant your blueberry plant in a raised bed or pot.
Blueberries belong to the same family as the cranberry and are a cousin to the rhododendron and azalea. It is because of this family connection that they like an acidic soil. Prepare the hole with well-rotted leaf mound or peat dug. About three weeks later, apply acid food – the same food used for azalea and rhododendrons. When you apply the fertiliser, sprinkle it in a ring a few centimetres out from the main stem. Don’t over fertilise – a couple of times a year will be enough.
Blueberries are mostly self-fertilising, but it’s common to see fruit, flowers and buds on the plant at the same time. This means that one bush on its own will struggle to provide a decent crop. Cross-pollination from bees is needed to improve this, so planting two or more varieties is a good idea.
Blueberries have very shallow roots and resent having their roots disturbed, so remove weeds by hand and avoid deep cultivation. Water is also key for growing healthy blueberries. Mulch around the root zone during summer to conserve moisture. As the mulch breaks down it will provide nutrients to the soil. As with the fertiliser, don’t mulch right up to the main stem – give it a bit of space.
For the first two years, remove the flowers. This will give the plant time to mature and establish a strong root system, providing better crops in the future. Be patient, full production will take a few years but they are well worth the wait.
Pruning is minimal while the bush is young. After that you just need to remember that fruit is produced on new wood from the previous year’s growth. Start by removing any damaged wood or branches that are touching the ground. Old wood is easy to spot as it is more weathered and spindly. This heavy pruning is best done in winter.
Pick the berries when they have coloured to a nice deep purple. To make sure you get to them before the birds, cover them with bird netting and use garden stakes to make a temporary raised frame above the bush.