Blueberry season approaches

Nearly ripe blueberries
Nearly ripe blueberries

Blueberries are a prized, expensive fruit packed with nutrition and antioxidants.  There are numerous species of Vaccinium that are grown and eaten as blueberries, both wild and cultivated, but here in the South the most commonly grown species for fruit is Vaccinium virgatum, the Rabbiteye blueberry.  Native to the region, this species is easy to grow and requires little care for the shrubs to thrive.  They like the soil on the acidic side, and will grow even in full shade — although plants in full shade are unlikely to produce much fruit.  Keeping the plants mulched with arborist chips, shredded leaves or other woody material will keep their roots happy as it decomposes.

While the shrubs themselves are suitable for foundation plantings and are semi-evergreen with red and purple fall leaves, few people grow them for their ornamental properties.  It’s the berries we want, berries which can easy sell for $10/pound in the grocery stores and markets.  Since shrubs can generally be found in spring for about $10 at any nursery, if you have the space to devote to a blueberry hedge it’s a pretty safe bet they will pay you back quickly.  Go ahead and dig up those boring boxwoods by the front porch.

Right now, the bushes are full of unripe blueberries, and this is a tough time of waiting for growers.  It seems to take forever for those berries to fully ripen.  You aren’t the only one watching, either: you can be sure the birds are checking them religiously.  Right now, your normally trouble-free shrubs need a little help from you if you want to get quality berries.

  • One, when the blueberries start to ripen, you want to have some cover on hand for them.  So start looking for cover you can use now.  You can use nursery shade cloth, old window screening or even loose-woven fabric.  You don’t want to shade the berries fully, but you do want to keep out the birds.  Please don’t use bird netting.  It kills helpful garden snakes (which you will have to clean up), sometimes traps birds and doesn’t prevent the birds from pulling berries through the holes anyway.
  • Two, it is essential that the berry bushes get ample water right now.  Established shrubs themselves will be fine without, but for you to harvest sweet, juicy berries, they need 1-2″ of water per week over the root ball through the berry season and for a little while afterwards.  If the rain doesn’t cooperate, you will need to irrigate.

Here in North Alabama, we got a good rain last week but it’s dry and hot now with no sign of significant rain in the forecast.  It’s time to water the blueberries.