Grow Your Own Blueberries

berries
Photo by Arena Creative

Almost everyone loves blueberries, a fruit as delicious to eat fresh as baked in muffins. This versatile little powerhouse fruit has a reputation for being super good for you, too – high in antioxidants (particularly anthocyanin, responsible for this fruit’s blue colour) and fibre, and a great source of the vitamins A, C, E, potassium and manganese.

Blueberries are a fantastic addition to the home garden, be it contained on a balcony or sprawling across acres, due to their adaptability and longevity – a happy mature blueberry bush can produce fruit for many years.

Description

Blueberries are a perennial woody bush originating from North America. They can be deciduous or semi-deciduous, with a stunning autumn display of colour; or evergreen, depending on the variety and where they are grown. Bushes range in size from around one metre through to more than two metres tall, making them great for anything from growing in pots to creating edible hedges.

Blueberry bushes develop delicate white and pink bellshaped flowers, adored by bees in late winter and spring. The bushes produce fruit through summer and into autumn. Most varieties are self-pollinating, meaning you only need one bush to successfully produce fruit; although you will get a much larger harvest if they have a complementary variety planted close by, for cross-pollination to occur.

Varieties For The Australian Climate

Blueberries in Australia are the highbush (northern or southern) and rabbiteye varieties and are categorised according to high chill or low chill requirements. High chill cultivars require greater than 700 ‘chilling units’ (hours below approximately seven degrees) for proper flower and fruit development, making them suitable for cooler southern areas. Low chill cultivars, requiring 150–600 chilling units, are better suited to warm temperate and subtropical environments.

High chill varieties for southern Australia include Northland, Brigitta and Blue Rose. Low chill varieties for warmer districts include Sunshine Blue, Sharpe Blue and Brightwell. There are many varieties available; ask your local nursery to recommend a variety for your area that also meets your needs.

Soil pH

There is one quirk about growing blueberries that probably accounts for the majority of occasions where the plants fail to thrive in home gardens – soil pH. Blueberries are in the relatively small group of plants (the Ericaceae family) that need an acidic soil pH to do well. Soil pH is considered neutral at 7, with the vast majority of garden plants and vegetables preferring a soil pH of 6.5–7.5.

Along with plants like azaleas, camellias and cranberries, blueberries like a pH of 4–5.5. This can make it tricky when you plant blueberries directly in your garden, among all those plants preferring a neutral soil pH.

In The Ground Or In Pots?

So, how do you get around potential pH problems? One solution is to plant your blueberries in large pots, where it is easy to correct and maintain the soil pH. Blueberries like to have a moist soil environment and have many fine roots in the top 30 cm of the soil, so choose the largest pot size practical for you and plant a variety with a maturity size to match.

To make sure your soil pH is suitable, you can use a high quality potting mix specific for camellias and azaleas. You can add spent coffee grounds, which are slightly acidic, as a decent source of nitrogen for the soil; and add pine bark for good drainage, without raising the pH.

If you plant directly into the ground, add coffee grounds, pine bark or needles, well-rotted cow manure or broken down oak leaves to the soil. These are all good sources of organic matter, which won’t raise your soil pH. If your soil needs to have significant adjustment, you can apply horticultural sulphate – this works over time to lower the pH, so is best done well in advance of planting.

berries
Photo by Arena Creative

Plant Maintenance

Blueberries require little ongoing maintenance beyond frequent watering, mulching to maintain a cool root environment, and regular fertiliser applications, as they love soil high in organic matter. Liquid seaweed or fish emulsion is also a good addition, especially applied regularly in spring and summer. In the garden, position the bushes where they will be protected from strong winds and heavy frosts. In very hot environments, they benefit from dappled shade and make great understory plants in a food forest.

Blueberries flower and fruit on the ends of second-year growth, so promote good flowering by giving them a decent prune every two or three years. Remove old, dead or damaged wood in late winter and keep the centre of the bush open and free from branches growing inwards.

This shaping encourages good airflow and is especially important in humid environments to discourage potential problems from pests and disease. A harder prune will result in fewer but larger fruit in the first year and a bumper crop the year after, as the bush will have been stimulated to produce abundant fresh growth with lots of fruiting buds.

When establishing plants, it is best to remove most flowers in the first year or two so the plant can focus on root and vegetative growth – if you can bear to do it, it will set you up with a strong plant for many years to come. Mature blueberry bushes can also send up suckers from their roots – there is no need to remove them if you are happy with the bush spreading, as they will become productive branches over time.

Pests And Disease

Blueberries are not especially pest or disease prone, although a few issues can arise. Fungal problems like blueberry rust during periods of high humidity can be treated with a homemade or organic fungicide. Good plant health and pruning will help prevent blueberry rust from becoming a persistent issue.

Scale insects and aphids can be a problem for any weak or unhealthy plants. Treat them with a natural solution like soapy water or an eco-oil, making sure to observe any withholding periods if you are spraying onto plants with fruit.

A healthy plant will be able to resist and repel most insect and disease attacks. Test your soil to make sure pH is optimal and promote overall plant health if you see recurring problems, using appropriate fertiliser and liquid health tonics like seaweed or worm tea.

The biggest pest issue with blueberries will likely be birds or pets! Netting each bush is the easiest way to preserve the harvest for yourself. It often feels like some birds such as blackbirds have a way of knowing exactly when to come in to grab the perfectly ripe fruit.

Harvest And Preserving

Berries are initially small and green, gradually turning blue as they swell. They won’t ripen further once picked, so once they turn blue, leave berries for a couple of days to fully sweeten, then harvest them.

Berries ripen individually in their bunches and a mature bush can produce five kilograms and more each year. So just a few bushes will give you enough fruit to enjoy fresh and be able to use some for preserving as jam or in homemade fruit leathers.

Berry quality does decline in hot weather. An easy way to keep blueberries for the winter is to simply freeze them. As long as the skins aren’t damaged, blueberries freeze without sticking together; and you can easily scoop out what you need to add to smoothies, desserts or baking.

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