Plant blue­ber­ries

Blue­ber­ries are de­li­cious lit­tle morsels of good­ness, and they are sur­pris­ingly easy to grow in a home gar­den, writes JUSTIN RUS­SELL

Gardening Australia - - CONTENTS -

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.

get­ting started

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.

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