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Blueberry Culture in a Climate That Isn't to Their Favor

Amy and I grew up in New Jersey were blueberries are native. We could find wild plants and eat to our heart's content. In south Jersey, there are many acres of "tame" blueberries. (Amy used to work in the berry fields during the summers.) I have even seen NJ blueberries in the grocery stores here in SW Missouri.

But that is New Jersey; this is Missouri. Growing conditions are different here, not necessarily favorable for blueberry growing. Good growing conditions for blueberries can be supplied here, but you will have to work at it. If you tell the blueberry plants to "suck up; get tough or die" they will do just that - die!

Here's what they need:

  • They need a spot that receives sun for at least half a day.

  • You must supply at least 1" of rain (or water) each week as long as the ground is not frozen! (The water table in the blueberry-growing region of NJ is close to the surface, and it rains at regular intervals compared to our droughty summer conditions.)

  • The soil needs to be quite acidic to allow the plants to extract the nutrients that are required for growth. (NJ soil is naturally acidic; Missouri soil is naturally not acidic!) I recommend adding at least 6" of peat moss to the native soil to lower the pH, making it more acidic. Do not add lime or wood ash since this makes the soil less acidic.

  • A mulch of pine needles or more peat moss will help keep the roots moist and acidify the soil.

More on acidifying the soil: If you are seeing lots of yellow leaves, the plants need more iron. Acidifying the soil makes the iron that is in the soil more readily available to the blueberry plants. If you are getting yellow leaves, I recommend in the short term, to feed your plants with Miracid, from MiracleGro. It has extra iron in it to help the blueberries grow. Here at Hilltop Farm, we use Miracid on almost everything because our well water has lots of calcium and magnesium in it; they tie up the iron so the plant can't use it.

So, in the short term, use Miracid. In the long term, acidify the soil with more peat moss, pine needles, or any other acidic type soil amendment or mulch. Powdered sulfur can be added to the soil to slowly acidify it. It is extracted from crude oil, but is considered an "organic" product. Go figure!

The good news: In the regions of the country where blueberries are native, they also have bugs and such that are a plague to blueberries. Here we do not have much of a bug issue. Usually blueberries can be raised in Missouri without insecticides. ☺

Also, our long growing season allows many varieties of blueberries to flourish. With the right variety assortment you can start picking in June and keep picking until September!

Birds can be a problem - eating your blueberries! However, putting netting over the bushes just before the berries start to ripen, the birds can be thwarted.

Raised bed culture works extremely well for blueberries because you get to control soil conditions by the soil you add. I would recommend using a mix of 1/3 top soil, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 unscreened river sand. This is by volume, not weight. For one plant wide rows of blueberry plants, I would make the raised bed 4' wide, and plant the bushed about 4' apart.

You will get the nicest berries and heaviest yields if you have several varieties to cross pollinate each other. They are pollinated by different types of bees, so be nice to all your pollinators.

Off a mature plant (4 years old or older), you can plan on 10 lbs. of blueberries per plant per year. The berries freeze well with minimal prep: just rinse the berries, air dry, put into zip-lock bags, and freeze!

Berry size ranges from tiny to the size of a quarter. I like the bigger ones - easy to pick and impressive in the kitchen. All taste great if allowed to ripen fully before picking. You are not shipping them to far off states, so let them become maximum sweet and amazing.

Variety Spotlight #14, 3/23/2014 © Hilltop Farm

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