GDRT Underutilized Plants: A 4-Season Beauty with a Bonus

I was thrilled when GDRT’s readers choose underutilized plants as our topic for July.  As soon as underutilized plants was first mentioned around the Roundtable as a possible topic, I knew if it was chosen I would write about highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum). I have been singing the praises of using native blueberries for their ornamental value in designed landscapes for years.  To me, they are the ideal garden shrub since they literally have four seasons of interest and produce one of my favorite summer treats – fresh picked blueberries!     

Blueberries are often thought of as simply commercial fruit production plants or ‘that shrub’ for use in reclamation projects.  That may be why they can be overlooked when gardeners are trying to add easy-care ornamental beauty to their gardens.  But, I think Vaccinium corymbosum deserves a place in every garden (ok, they only grow in zones 3 – 10, so almost every garden).    

Delicate pale white flowers of V. Patriot

 Let’s start with spring.  Clusters of pale white bell-shaped flowers adorn Vaccinium corymbosum in the spring.  Flowers provide an important nectar source for native bees, butterflies and other winged pollinators.  On some spring days, my blueberry bush looks like Grand Central Station.  To add to the spring sensation, the new leaves of V. ‘Patriot’ are an orangey-bronze color which is quite stunning next to the flowers and adds another interesting dimension to its ornamental value.  

Summer brings clusters of delicious blueberries to your garden

Summer brings with it beautiful, colorful and tasty blueberries.  At times, there are so many berries they seem to hang like frosted baubles calling out for the birds to come and take a few.  Shrubs can look like they are covered in a hazy, blue gauze.  Believe me, there will certainly be many admiring comments from visitors to your garden when they see your blueberries in fruit.      

If you are growing blueberries primarily for their fruit production, it is prudent to take steps to protect the berries from the birds with netting or some other protective device.  In my garden, Vaccinium corymbosum is grown primarily for its ornamental value so the birds are welcome to eat as many berries as they like, as long as I get a few handfuls from time to time.    

A riot of red signals the arrival of fall

 After a little down time, vaccinium is ready to take center stage again.  Many gardeners do not realize  the glorious colors of  vaccinium’s fall foliage rivals that of many better-known fall stars.  If you live in an area where winged burning bush (Euonymus alatus) is invasive, or becoming invasive, consider planting blueberries as a native, non- invasive alternative.  The benefits will be many and the fall color will simply amaze you.   

In the winter, when many gardens could use a bit more color and interest, this shrub will come to your rescue.  Stems take on a reddish tinge as the weather cools.  Different cultivars have different shades and intensity of color, but all offer a fourth season of interest to your garden.  The stems of my V. ‘Patriot’ are a reddish-pink in the winter and offer a subtle color compliment to some of my other red bark plants like coral bark maple and red twig dogwood.    

If four seasons of color and interest are not enough to convince you to plant some Vaccinium corymbosum, here’s another reason – biodiversity.  Native plants are pivotal to sustaining biodiversity.  (If you would like to learn more about the importance of biodiversity, I encourage you to read Bringing Nature Home  by Douglas Tallamy.)  In addition to the native bees I already mentioned, Vacciniums are a host plant for hundreds of species of moths and caterpillars.  And small mammals and songbirds love the fruit.  So if you’d like to attract some furry and fluffy friends to your garden, plant a few blueberry bushes.   

Design tip: Consider growing blueberries in containers for a moveable feast for your eyes and your taste buds!

Still need more persuading?  Adding blueberries to your garden is an almost effortless way to get involved in the edible revolution.  Maybe it’s just me, but growing my own edibles seems like a lot of work sometimes.  Here it is the end of July and I still don’t have any ripe tomatoes!  I’ve pampered them since I first planted them ages ago… I’ve watered them, fertilized them, staked them, picked aphids off their leaves and still the fruit is green.  I can’t help wondering if all the effort is actually worth it.  But those yummy blueberries are so simple and carefree!   

 Blueberry Basics    

To learn even more about Vaccinium corymbosum, I went straight to the largest wholesale grower of blueberries in the US, Fall Creek Farm and Nursery.  According to Amelie Aust, New Business Manager at Fall Creek, when it comes to success with blueberries, it’s all about the ‘chilling’.  Chilling refers to the accumulated number of hours below 45 degrees the Vaccinium shrub receives during dormancy.  Northern highbush blueberries require at least 800 hours of chilling to set fruit so they are best planted by cold climate gardeners.  Southern highbush blueberries require far fewer hours of chilling, some need only 150 hours, so they are ideal for warmer climate gardeners.  With so many different cultivars, blueberries can be grown from zones 3 – 10.  Just be sure to select cultivars that are well-suited to your growing conditions.    

Vacciniums prefer a sunny spot with acidic, well-draining soil.  If your soil is not acidic, consider growing your blueberries in a raised bed or container or adding peat moss or another soil acidifier when planting.  Blueberries are often found in the wild growing in swampy, wet soils but they are fairly adaptable and can thrive in considerably drier soil too, as long as it is acidic.    

Design tip: Plant blueberries in mass for a colorful and tasty privacy hedge

Blueberries are basically self-pollinating but you’ll get the best flower and fruit production if you plant more than one cultivar together.  And if you plan it properly, you can have fruit for several months at a time.  Cultivars are often  labeled as early, mid or late season fruiters.    

Blueberries benefit from periodic fertilizing but can be sensitive to over fertilization so be careful.  Apply an acid fertilizer, such as blood meal or cottonseed meal, in the early spring and again in the late spring.    

For optimal long-term results, consider taking off approximately ½ of the flowers for the first two growing seasons.  Yes, this will reduce your berry production in the short-term but it will help the shrub obtain a more pleasing overall shape and will ultimately lead to better berry production in the future.     

Design tip: Blueberries can easily be pruned and trained into a variety of different looks.

According to Amelie at North Creek Farm & Nursery, blueberries ‘love being pruned’ so don’t be afraid to prune your vaccinium, severely, if it starts to get leggy (which they are prone to doing).  Focus on pruning out old fruit bearing canes that are 5 years or older.  Canes need to go through a period of dormancy before producing berries but usually do so in their 2nd season.    

Don’t forget to check out what my fellow Roundtablers are offering up this month as their choice of Underutilized plants.  Just click on the links below:

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA »
Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA »
Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN »
Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA »
Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO »
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK »
Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX »
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In the Garden : Los Altos, CA »
Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT »
Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ »
Tara Dillard : Vanishing Threshold: Garden Life Home : Atlanta, GA »

Carolyn Gail Choi : Sweet Home and Garden Chicago : Chicago, IL »


About Fall Creek Farm & Nursery:  
Fall Creek Farm & Nursery (FCFN) is the leading blueberry nursery stock producer in the world.  Located in Lowell, OR, FCFN also sells other berry producing plants such as raspberries and blackberries.  Selling wholesale to two main market sectors, commercial growers and home gardeners, plants are available all over the country through wholesale, retail and mail order sources.  Remember – wholesale means they don’t sell directly to home gardeners.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check out their website, especially if you’re new to blueberries and need a little help find just the right cultivar (or two) for your garden.  Thanks to Amelie for sharing her wealth of blueberry knowledge.  FCFN supplied many of the photos used in this post.  The others were taken by me in my garden.

Shrubs for Bird-Scaping

This is the third post in a series about landscaping specifically to attract birds to your garden – bird-scaping.  The first post, an overview of bird-scaping can be found here.  The second post, about the importance of trees to a bird-friendly garden ,which includes several suggestions for trees that are especially attractive to birds can be found here.  In subsequent posts I will discuss bird-friendly perennials and accessories for a bird-scaped garden such as feeders and birdbaths.

Shrubs play an integral role in any garden.  They add structure, permanence and continuity to a garden, aswell as adding seasonal color and interest. In a bird-scaped garden, shrubs perform other important functions too.  Since shrubs have a smaller stature than trees, they bring birds down to eye level.  They provide hiding places for quick getaways from predators, shelter from the weather, shady spots for birds to take a rest and check out the goings-on in the garden, a place to build a nest, and are an important source of food. Did you realize your shrubs play so many vital roles for birds?  Are you looking at them differently now?  I hope so.

With so many shrub options available, it’s critical to choose a variety of shrubs that will not only add color and interest throughout the year but also provide a changing source of food and shelter for birds.  So how should you start narrowing down the list?  You can’t go wrong with native shrubs.  Many native shrubs have food that is timed and sized just right for birds.  For example, the fruit of serviceberry (Amelanchier) ripens just as the first clutch of robin hatchings are ready to leave the nest.  (To find shrubs that are native to your garden, contact your local Cooperative Extension office or visit Plant Native.) 

Plant a mix of evergreen and deciduous shrubs and try to include shrubs that flower and fruit at different times of the year.  Shrubs that provide food and shelter in the late fall and winter when birds need them the most are especially important for a bird-scaped garden.

While there are many worthwhile shrubs to consider planting to attract birds and other wildlife, here are a few of my favorite native shrubs:

American cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) – This deciduous shrub, native to the northeastern and northwestern US and hardy from zones 2 – 7, quickly grows to an 8’ tall and equally wide bird magnet.  With white flowers in June, red berries in the fall and rich reddish purple fall color, it has a lot to offer any garden.  American cranberry can be used as a hedge or privacy screen.  If the species is too large for your garden, look for some of its dwarf cultivars.

Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) – Hardy from zones 4 – 9, chokeberry is native through most of the eastern US.  Its small white flowers are a favorite of bees and butterflies and its red berries often persist well into the winter.  As if that weren’t enough, chokeberries turn a brilliant red in the fall and are a native, non-invasive alternative to winged euonymus.  Chokeberry is adaptable to a variety of soils, as long as it is well-draining.  It tolerates full sun to fairly dense shade but berry set is best with more sun.  Use it as a privacy screen or hedge or as part of a natural woodland border.

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) – If you’re looking for a truly versatile shrub to attract birds, this is it.  Hardy from zones 4 – 8 and native to much of the eastern US, highbush blueberry is not overly picky about soil, as long as it’s acidic.  A good option for wet soil, it is also drought tolerant once established.   White flowers in May are followed by berries that are loved by both birds and humans.  Like chokeberry, the foliage of blueberries puts on an amazing colorful display in the fall and new stems add a touch of pinkish-red color in the winter garden.  There are a wide variety of cultivars available to suit any garden scenario, with most growing 3 – 6 tall and wide.  Plant more than one cultivar to ensure better fruit set and to extend the berry season.  Highbush blueberry can be used in mixed borders and is a good companion to rhododendrons and azaleas. 

Red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea)  – Best known for its blazing red winter color, red-osier dogwood is also a favorite of birds for both nesting and sustenance.  Creamy white flowers in late spring give way to white berries in midsummer.  Many insects also feed on the leaves of this shrub so insect eating birds will find it a welcome addition to their smorgasbord.  Native to the northern half of the US and hardy in zones 3 – 8, red-osier dogwood prefers a wet soil and tolerates sun to partial shade.  Use redosier dogwood in a mixed border, as a hedge or screen and combine it with broad-leaved evergreens or birch to really showcase its winter color. 

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) – This tall deciduous shrub which is native from Maine right down to Florida and is hardy in zones 4 – 8, starts its show in early spring.  Soft yellow flowers open when not much else is in bloom and are instantly visited by the first bees of the spring.  Female plants sport red berries in the fall and are a favorite of many migratory birds.  Both the reddish-brown bark and light green leaves are aromatic when crushed.  Spicebush prefers moist soil and tolerates shade so it is an ideal candidate for a wet and shady location.  (If you have one of those sites in your garden you can appreciate how difficult it can be to find suitable plants.) Use spicebush naturalized in a woodland garden or as part of a hedgerow.