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).
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 »
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.