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Blueberries Thrive in Proper Soil

July 10, 1999|From ASSOCIATED PRESS

A century ago, the only blueberries were wild--if you were lucky enough to pick them before the birds got them. Then, Frank Coville, an Agriculture Department scientist, began finding and breeding better varieties of blueberries and studying how to grow them.

Today, wild blueberries yield treats to hikers, but they're no match for the plumper and juicier hybrids you can grow in the backyard.

Similarly, commercial berries are no flavor match for home-grown berries. That's because commercial growers harvest blueberries just when they turn blue, without letting them develop full flavor on the bushes.

Growing blueberries is easy in the right soil. Insects and diseases are rarely a problem. Pruning is simple: Remove stems that droop on the ground, crowd the bush's center, or are very old. Blueberries also are easy to pick and will bear fruit for decades.

Mail-order nurseries and local garden centers sell many of the better varieties. Some varieties ripen with raspberries, ideal for raspberry-blueberry pies. Others are on schedule with peaches, for peach-blueberry cobblers. Some ripen as late as apples.

Blueberries are finicky about their soil. They want very acidic soil with a pH of 4 to 5. Determine acidity with a soil test and, if needed, apply about 8 ounces of sulfur per 100 square feet. Sulfur is available at garden supply stores.

Blueberries also need a soil that is moist and rich in humus. Cater to both needs by mixing plenty of peat moss into the planting hole. After that, cover the ground with a 3-inch-thick mulch of sawdust or other organic material such as leaves or straw. Add enough mulch each year to replace what decomposes. These organic mulches also conserve soil water, but when rainfall is scarce, give each plant one thorough weekly soaking.

Birds love blueberries as much as do humans and in some gardens will eat almost all the fruit.

Strips of foil hung among the stems sometimes scare off birds, but the most foolproof way to thwart them is to throw a net over the bushes. Then you can let the fruit hang long enough so that only those that are perfectly ripe will drop into your hand when you tickle the clusters.

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