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The Plant Medic

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Area’s alkaline soils complicate growing blueberries

Q. I would like to grow blueberries because I have heard so much about their health benefits. Are they difficult to grow?

A. Numerous research studies discuss the nutrient value of blueberries. A major constituent of the fiber is pectin, renowned for its ability to lower blood cholesterol. Blueberries, like blackberries and strawberries, contain measurable quantities of ellagic acid, which has inhibiting effects on chemically induced cancer in laboratory studies. Blueberry juice also contains a compound that helps prevent urinary tract infections. Blueberries have also been shown to reduce the effects of glaucoma and improve memory according to reports by the USDA.

Growing blueberries can be challenging and frustrating because they require specific soils and climatic conditions that may not be found in many parts of our region. Blueberries require acidic soils (unlike our alkaline clay soils) with high organic matter content. They can be injured by late spring and early fall frosts.

High bush blueberries or hardy hybrids are recommended for home gardens in our region.

The University of Illinois recommends these varieties: Collins, Patriot, Bluejay, Bluecrop, Herbert, Nelson, Northland, Jersey and Elliot.

Blueberries prefer at least six hours of direct sunlight a day and good drainage. It is better to plant several blueberries together – rather than just a single plant – for better pollination and yields.

In my opinion, blueberries will do their best in raised beds. The beds need to be at least 12 inches in depth. Fill the beds with sand (50 percent) and Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss (50 percent) mixed together. Each year, add at least 2 pounds of sulfur per 100 square feet of bed.

Construct PVC or light lathe cages (with netting or hardware cloth over the cages) that will fit over the beds. There is nothing worse than to lose a crop of blueberries to birds.

Test the soil periodically and adjust the pH with applications of pelletized sulfur to the 4.5 to 5.2 range. Mulch the beds with 2 inches of quality compost. Add 2 to 3 inches of pine needles on the surface.

Irrigate during dry weather using overhead or drip irrigation. Soak the soil to ensure that the roots within the 12 to 16 inch depth are watered. Blueberries hate being overwatered and despise intense heat and drought.

One can use compost tea, ammonium sulfate, or both – to fertilize one’s blueberries each year. Remove old (older than 6 years), spindly, and damaged or diseased canes, each year in the early spring.

Open the center of the bush by pruning overcrowded canes.

Blossom removal is recommended for the first two years after planting in order for the plants to channel energy into shoot and root development.

It might take up to 5 years for the plants to bear heavily.

Patience and knowledge of the cultural requirements of blueberry will allow gardeners to reap the health benefits that blueberries can provide.

The Plant Medic, written by Ricky Kemery, appears every other Sunday. Kemery is the extension educator for horticulture at the Allen County branch of the Purdue Extension Service. Send questions to kemeryr@purdue.edu.

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