Blueberries are popular. Next time you are at the grocery store, look in the cart of someone who is a millennial (in their 20s or early 30s); more often than not, there will be blueberries in there. Deemed a “superfood” because of the antioxidant power of the blue anthocyanin pigment, blueberries are more popular than ever.
But guess what — blueberries you buy at the grocery store pale in comparison to those you grow at home. If you asked Willie Wonka, he’d have to tell you that store-bought blueberries do not, in fact, taste like blueberries. Homegrown blueberries have so much flavor and sweetness; store-bought blueberries sometimes taste like juicy Styrofoam. But don’t let those tasteless berries give you the blues — plant the blues instead. (Oh, and have you ever noticed that blueberries aren’t really blue. They’re more indigo or purple.)
Blueberries are a native crop to North America. In fact, you can find wild bushes, sometimes referred to as huckleberries, growing in the wood of West Virginia. I’ve heard many people say that they’ve picked these tasty berries in Dolly Sods and other wooded areas. I can remember taking people on hikes when I was a summer naturalist at Watoga State Park that ended in a thicket of huckleberry bushes — a treat for the hikers when they were ripe.
Blueberries are fairly low maintenance, so they make a good choice for beginning gardeners or those with limited time. I also think that they make great additions to the ornamental landscape, thanks to their attractive pinkish white flowers, indigo blue berries, bright red fall foliage and even a tinge of color on the bare branches in winter. You can easily stick them in amongst other plants with the same needs, like azalea, Rhododendron, holly and Hydrangea.
The key to good blueberry growth is an acidic soil. Luckily, most of our native soils in West Virginia are acidic on their own and only need minimal amendment. One mistake many gardeners make is applying lime to blueberries or planting them where the soil pH has been raised with lime. Since we have to adjust the pH upward to grow just about everything else, it is almost like autopilot for gardeners to apply lime. When the pH is too high, the blueberry plants do poorly and usually end up failing.
The optimal pH range for blueberries is 4.5-5.0. For the best success, test your soil to determine the current soil pH and adjust accordingly. The most accurate way to test your soil is by sending a sample to the WVU testing lab, which is free. Just pick up a form at your local extension office, or find one at kanawha.ext.wvu.edu/agriculture/soiltest. Most of the soil tests from untreated soil I see are around 5.5, which is close but not perfect. To lower the pH, apply granular sulfur (the yellow powder you used to be able to buy at the pharmacy), use compound aluminum sulfate or fertilize with a nitrogen fertilizer called ammonium sulfate. Blueberries tend to like lots of organic material, so amending the soil with peat moss can also provide some pH adjustment. Many of the home remedies you see about lowering soil pH, such as using coffee grounds, pine needles or oak leaf compost are not effective.
Another thing to keep in mind when planting blueberries is to plant more than one bush, using different cultivars or varieties to increase cross-pollination for a bigger yield. To work, the bushes have to be in bloom at the same time for bees to cross pollinate them. Companies that sell these plants at the big box stores usually do a good job of listing cross-pollinator plants on the label, since it means they get to sell you at least two plants instead of one. Keep in mind that there are varieties that bloom (and mature) early, mid-season and late. Here’s a quick list of some varieties to look for:
- Earliblue — a very early variety with large berries that have a good flavor. Good dessert quality.
- Ivanhoe — a medium–sized berry with excellent flavor and dessert quality.
- Patriot — a large-fruited variety with very good quality growing on a small bush.
- Blueray — a later early variety with large, very good fruits with high dessert quality.
- Duke — a later early variety with large berries and high yields.
- Bluecrop — large fruit with good quality. The most popular variety at the nursery (though that doesn’t mean it’s the best).
- Berkeley — very large berries of decent quality that have a long storage life.
- Concord — small berries with very good flavor and high dessert quality.
- Elizabeth — large berries with excellent, acidic fruit with high dessert quality.
- Darrow — very large berries with excellent, acidic fruit with high dessert quality.
- Tophat — dwarf (2 inches tall) patio type with fair fruit quality. No pollinator required.
- Bluegold — medium sized berries with excellent flavor.
- Jersey — very late variety with medium berries. Good flavor with the classic blueberry taste.
- Elliott — very late variety with medium berries. Mild flavor with good dessert quality.
Once you get your bushes planted, you’ll need to prune a little, especially pruning out the old branches that have fruited over the last few years. Unlike apple or peach trees, though, heavy pruning is not necessary. You’ll probably also want to have some bird netting (or buy tulle from the craft store — you know, the kind you make tu-tus with) when the berries start to ripen to keep your wild feathered friends from eating your harvest.
Planting blueberries can result in years (decades) of delicious berries. I hope you’ll consider adding blueberries to your garden if you haven’t already done so. These wonderful plants make having the blues oh, so delicious.