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Berried Treasures

Thanks to Hybridizers, Gardeners Can Grow Blueberries in O.C.'s Warm, Alkaline Soil

January 10, 1998|KAREN DARDICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Make way, boysenberries. Scram, strawberries. It's time to think blue when it comes to berries.

For decades, berries have made their mark in Orange County. A major amusement park wouldn't have happened without Cordelia Knott's luscious boysenberry pies. And strawberry fields, while not forever, once covered much of the county.

Home gardeners have also enjoyed these sweet fruits, all the more tempting when picked bursting with flavor.

Still, until recently, gardeners in warmer regions were advised to limit their blueberry efforts to a variety called rabbiteye, which has had lackluster results in warm Southern California's alkaline soil.

Now, thanks to hybridizers, varieties are available that flourish here. They don't require as much chilling as their relatives, tolerate more alkaline soil conditions and still bear flavorful berries.

"Blueberries do great in Orange County if you get the right varieties," said John Bagnasco, a horticulture expert and the plant buyer for Armstrong Garden Centers.

Growing wild in the northeastern and southeastern United States, blueberries were first cultivated commercially in the early 1900s when Elizabeth White, a commercial cranberry grower, asked her pickers to search out the best blueberries in the wilds of New Jersey.

Her first attempts at their commercial cultivation were successful, and blueberries flourished in New Jersey, then Michigan and the Pacific Northwest, where they thrived in the cool, moist, acidic soil.

Today's blueberry bonanza is the result of hybridizers crossing varieties native to the Northeast, termed Northern highbush, with species native to America's Southeast, which are more heat-tolerant. The result is a new group called Southern highbush.

"Southern highbush are quality blueberries with low chill requirements," said Dave Brazelton, president of Fall Creek Farm and Nursery in Lowell, Ore. He has grown blueberries for more than 20 years and heads the world's largest blueberry nursery. "Home gardeners can now enjoy the whole world of blueberries."

There are four Southern highbush varieties that Bagnasco and Brazelton recommend for this region: Sunshine Blue, Cape Fear, O'Neal and Georgia Gem. More varieties will be available in a few years.

Sunshine Blue is the top pick, especially for inland gardens, because it only requires 150 hours of chilling and can grow where soil pH is 6.7. Blueberries usually need acid soil with a pH near 4.

Bagnasco said these blueberry shrubs are chilled sufficiently when air temperatures drop below 45 degrees. Chilling is cumulative, not consecutive, and winter nights easily satisfy that need.

Sunshine Blue is further distinguished by being evergreen and semi-dwarf to a height and spread of 3 feet. It's ideal for containers.

Both O'Neal and Georgia Gem need slightly more chill--200 hours. They grow to 5 feet. Cape Fear needs the most chilling--400 hours. Bagnasco recommends this variety for gardeners along the coast. Cape Fear also bears the largest berries.

Some gardeners like to plant blueberry shrubs, especially the evergreen varieties, as hedges or borders.

"They are attractive landscape shrubs with white or pink flowers and blue fruit much of the year," said Bagnasco, who grows blueberries at his Fallbrook home. "They don't have to be confined to just a fruit or vegetable garden."

Blueberries need full sun, although in hot inland areas they benefit from some afternoon shade. Their growing requirements are the same as sun azaleas--ample sunshine, fast-draining acid soil and adequate water.

Brazelton recommends container growing to ensure that the plants get their required acid soil. He suggests planting the shrub in a large terra-cotta container of azalea-camellia planting mix.

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The hardest part for gardeners is exercising patience and stripping the young shrubs of most of the fruit.

"Blueberry plants can produce so much fruit that it keeps the plant from maturing properly," Brazelton said. "They produce incredible fruit load and can bear themselves into oblivion.

"The way to help the young plant as it matures is to strip off most of the blooms the first season. Leave just 10% to 20%. In future years, remove 50%."

After several years, the bush will need shaping. Pruning will take care of restricting fruit production, Brazelton said. He recommends removing smaller branches and growth close to the soil for easy gathering. Leave the new growth that emerges on top of the bush.

Although blueberries are self-pollinating, fruit production is improved if two or more shrubs are in the same vicinity. They don't have to be the same variety,

Blueberries are easy to care for, as long as they have the required acidic conditions, Bagnasco said. Use a fertilizer formulated for azaleas and camellias or cottonseed meal. Apply in spring and again in summer according to package directions. Water regularly.

Diseases and insects are not known to attack these berry plants, although they're so new to Southern California that all the facts aren't in. More likely invaders will be birds.

Growing the shrubs in containers on patios or decks, where you can keep a close eye on the fruit, may help keep the blueberry crop from hungry birds.

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