Blueberries are delicious little morsels of goodness, and they are surprisingly easy to grow in a home garden, writes JUSTIN RUSSELL
Blueberries have an enviable reputation in the world of edible plants. They are renowned for being one of the healthiest fruits, high in antioxidants and able to boost serotonin levels in the brain – and they’re delicious! It’s little surprise that they command eye-popping prices – upwards of $80 a kilogram for premium organic fruit.
I know some wonderful organic blueberry farmers in places as diverse as southern Queensland and southern Tasmania, and demand is booming. Many growers can barely keep up. Yet in the right conditions, blueberries are relatively easy plants to grow at home, capable of thriving anywhere azaleas and camellias are happy, from far north Queensland’s Atherton Tableland, all the way south to Tasmania’s Huon Valley, and along the southern coastline to Perth in the west.
In cold, frost-prone areas, the best variety is northern highbush blueberry ( Vaccinium corymbosum). This originates in south-eastern Canada and eastern US, where plants grow on the edge of pine forests in moist, acidic soils. Replicate these conditions at home, either in the ground or a pot, and you’re on to a winner.
In subtropical and warm temperate areas, where frost is occasional or non-existent, direct your attention to low-chill varieties. These are rabbiteye types (of the species V. ashei), southern highbush types, from places such as Florida and South Carolina, or hybrids. Only 100–200 chilling hours (below 7°C) are required for some of these varieties, and they tend to be slightly more drought and heat tolerant than their cold-climate cousins. In all cases, you need to provide a low soil pH. Around 4.5–5.5 is necessary for highbush plants to thrive, while low-chill types prefer 5.5–6.5. If your soil is only slightly acidic, you probably need to lower it ( see Problem Solver box) and if you’re on alkaline soil, grow blueberries in a pot for maximum success.
Choose a pot that’s 30cm or more across, and make sure it has drainage holes. Use potting mix designed for azaleas and camellias, which have similar requirements.
care & harvest
Two things to note: blueberries like it moist, but not swampy, and pollination needs vary among varieties. Regular watering is essential, especially in dry spells, but good drainage is vital. If your ground is heavyish
(but not sticky clay), dig in homemade compost before planting. Don’t use mushroom compost, as it is alkaline.
As for pollination, highbush types are often self-fertile but perform better with a partner, while rabbiteyes need a partner to cross-pollinate with, and hybrids vary, so check with your nursery. It’s best to stick to varieties from the same group to ensure bumper returns.
Be careful when pruning blueberry plants. Fruit is borne on the previous season’s growth, so all-over haircuts will remove the fruiting wood. The best approach is to cut back entire stems at ground level when they get too tall and spindly. Do this in winter. Fresh, healthy shoots will form at the base in spring, and then flower and fruit the following year.
As a general rule, healthy, established blueberry plants can bear 8–10kg of fruit per bush per year.
A pair of mature blueberries growing in containers sees you eating berries for brekkie most mornings in summer, while a hedge of up to 10 plants keeps you in breakfast berries, and has enough left over to freeze for winter or swap with the neighbours.