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Blueberries provide 3-season beauty

December 22, 2008|By MAUREEN GILMER / Scripps Howard News Service

Blueberries are the hottest food-bearing plant on the market due to antioxidant content and sky-high grocery-store prices. In recent decades, breeding has resulted in dozens of varieties that extend the blueberry climate limitations to include the far north and far south. There is a huge range of sizes, from rangy shrubs to squat 2-foot-tall dwarfs. Plus, early- to late-yielding varieties extend the harvest season from weeks to months.

Because blueberries are upright, long-lived shrubs, you can plant a hedge of them that is both functional and productive. Hedges also give you access to both sides of each plant for more convenient harvest. The hedge offers seasonal change, with beautiful white urn-shaped flowers in the spring, fruit in summer and bright red leaf color in the fall.

Hedges allow you to combine blueberries that bloom early with those that flower midseason and with late varieties. Grouping plants also assists in cross-pollination, because not all blueberries are self-fertile. Those that are not self-fertile will require a second variety nearby that flowers at the same time. Before you buy a blueberry shrub, be sure to inquire if it needs a pollinator and whether that plant is available. If it is not in stock, try to stick with self-fertile forms.

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Blueberries ask only for acidic PH soil, which is often found in regions of high rainfall such as the Pacific Northwest. These soil conditions are often present in forest environments, and homesites once covered by trees may prove ideal for the shrubs. The second requirement is well-drained soil, because blueberries will not stand for a saturated root zone. Planting on sloping ground can aid in improving drainage.

Blueberries root like other plants of the heath family such as rhododendrons. Their roots spread widely at the surface of the soil to feed off the layer of decaying organic matter. If you cultivate the soil around the base of a blueberry, you will damage these surface roots, which can seriously damage the health of the plant. Because blueberries prefer even moisture in the root zone, mulching is recommended. Mulch also protects the roots from summer heat by shading the sensitive surface roots from direct sun. Similarly, if there is a winter cold snap and the soil surface freezes, the mulch will insulate the roots from frost damage. When spreading acidic mulches such as pine needles, be sure to keep it at least an inch or two away from the base of the trunk to prevent crown rot.

Keep in mind that the blueberry is a woody shrub, which makes it difficult to ship larger plants in the mail. Blueberries are regionally specific, with some doing better in the warm South and others tailored for the North. For this reason, the best place to get started with blueberries is at a local garden center. The centers know exactly what varieties are best suited to your climate, what plants need pollinators, what pollinators are best and whether you can grow early-season bloomers where you live.

With a container-grown shrub, you can buy good-sized plants that bloom and bear very well. Buying from a mail-order catalog limits size and root ball to what can be shipped easily. Plus, there's less locally specific guidance than when you buy from a garden center.

America is just catching on to the fact that you don't have to live in the cool, moist North to cultivate this exorbitantly priced delicacy. Whether you're in Florida, Oklahoma or California, when it comes time to landscape, don't underestimate the value of the modern highbred blueberry.

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