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No Need to Miss East's Blueberries

February 03, 2001|By U.C. MASTER GARDENERS

Question: I miss the blueberries I grew up with on the East Coast. Can I grow them here?

J.B., La Habra

Answer: Though we think of blueberries as a colder climate plant, the Southern high-bush varieties are easy to grow here, as long as you provide them with the proper soil.

Because all blueberries need soil with a 4.5-5.0 pH, high organic content and good drainage, we should not plant them directly in the ground here. Plant them in containers or raised beds.

When planting in containers, use pure peat moss. For raised beds with sandy soil, use pure peat moss in the planting hole. For raised beds with clay soil, use one-half pumice and one-half peat moss in the planting hole.

Blueberries are not self-pollinating, so you need to plant two types in each pot or hole.

They can be planted at any time of the year in Southern California, but January and February are ideal, giving the bushes time to settle in and take advantage of our winter rains. You can find bare-root blueberries at many nurseries now.

Of the Southern high-bush blueberries, 'O'Neal' has the strongest blueberry flavor, while 'Sunshine Blue' produces medium-size fruit and is the most ornamental, growing only 3 to 4 feet tall.

Blueberries begin to bear fruit by their third year of growth and have a life span of 25 to 30 years. In general, they grow 3 to 6 feet tall and nearly as wide.

To grow blueberries successfully, keep in mind they should be planted in full sun. Proper watering, fertilizing and pruning are also important.

The most common problem with blueberries is lack of water. The plant has very fine, webbed roots that grow close to the surface, which makes it a good candidate for drip irrigation.

During the growing season, keep plants moist at all times. Mature plants require five to seven gallons of water per day, especially toward harvest time.

Use a high-nitrogen, acidifying fertilizer, such as ammonium sulfate (21-0-0) or a food formulated for shade plants (18-4-7).

At maturity, blueberries need a pound of fertilizer per year, and the food should be distributed widely around the roots. Give one-half pound in spring and one-half pound in early summer. If the plant experiences chlorosis, which leads to yellowing of new leaves, also fertilize with iron sulfate or iron chelate.

After the bush is mature, cut branch tips back, by no more than 6 inches, during winter dormancy. Also make sure to thin out old, tangled branches. If your crop is small or the berries are tiny, you need to thin and trim more the following season.

Once a bush is fully mature, you can also propagate by taking hardwood cuttings. In our climate, plant rooted cuttings in the fall.

Blueberries bloom in spring or early summer and are ready for picking 60 to 80 days later. They ripen all at once on the bush. Once the berries turn blue, wait three days to one week and then try a berry. A ripe berry is sweet. Unripe berries taste tart and sour.

--Written by University of California Master Gardener Pat Whatley of Laguna Hills.

* Have a problem in your yard? University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Master Gardeners are here to help. These trained and certified horticultural volunteers are dedicated to extending research-based, scientifically accurate information to the public about home horticulture and pest management. They are involved with a variety of outreach programs, including the UCCE Master Garden hotline, which provides answers to specific questions. You can reach the hotline at (714) 708-1646 or send e-mail to ucmastergardeners Calls and e-mail are picked up daily and are generally returned within two to three days. Please include your name and city of residence.

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