Top Of The Crops - Blueberries

Did you know that blueberries, one of the most popular fruits in the UK, are actually native to North America? They are related to a similar fruit, called a bilberry (blaeberry in Scotland) that grows in the wild in the UK.[i] Blueberries and bilberries and beloved by adults and children alike for their vibrant colour, sweet yet tart flavour, and delicious smell. They add a bold punch of vibrancy to any smoothie or baked dessert, and are packed with vitamins and healthful antioxidants.

They are loaded with Vitamin K, Vitamin C, and Manganese, as well as a lot of fibre and a type of antioxidant polyphenol called anthocyanins. Anthocyanins can reduce the oxidative stress in your body and lower your ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, potentially lowering your risk of heart disease.[ii] Based on all of these positive, it’s no wonder that so many people want to try their hand at growing blueberries in their own garden. Here is a simple guide for how you can grow blueberries in polytunnels and/or containers.

 

Growing Blueberries in Polytunnels

Despite their relatively thin skins and delicate appearance, blueberries are actually rather hardy fruits that can grow well in your garden or in planters outside, using fruit cages and polytunnels.

Most people find that they have the most success when they use a combination of polytunnels and containers. The polytunnel acts as an extra barrier that prevents harsh or unexpectedly cold summer weather from destroying your plants. Polytunnels can also prevent hungry birds from pecking your blueberries into oblivion!

 

How To Grow Blueberries

Growing blueberries will be a pleasant and simple experience for any seasoned gardener, but even complete novices will usually have success. Follow these tips for the best results!

  • Use a container to maintain acidic soil - It is a good idea to use a container for growing your blueberries, as they need an acidic (low pH) growing environment. This ericaceous soil can actually harm many other fruits and vegetables, making a separate area a requirement. In order to maintain your low pH environment, you should water your blueberries with tap water rather than allowing rainwater to do the job. Blueberries like a pH of around 5.5 for ideal results.
  • Use ericaceous compost in your container – Using ericaceous compost in your containers will keep the soil at the right pH level.[iii] Completely change this compost every few years to maintain a high yield.
  • Keep the containers moist - Make sure that your containers are free draining, yet kept moist. Using pine needles as mulch is ideal, as these will produce the acidic soil conditions that the blueberries need to thrive. For the best results, place these at the bottom of your planters to keep the soil moist.
  • Use a container at least 30cm wide – Your containers should be at least 30cm wide when planting young blueberry plants. As they start to thrive and grow, move them up to 45-50cm containers.
  • Pruning your blueberries – For the first few years, you will not need to prune your blueberry plant. Once your blueberry bush is around 2 years old, you should prune it back during its dormant period. This will ensure that it will produce the maximum amount of berries each day. Remove some of the older and less productive wood from your bush every year to ensure that there is enough space for new growth each year.  
 

Sowing blueberries from seed

It is possible for home gardeners to sow blueberries from seed.[iv] While some people want to use seeds from the blueberries they’ve purchase from the shop, it is much better and more reliable to use viable blueberry seeds that you have purchased from a nursery.

Plant your seeds in the fall (if you live in a warm climate) or in the spring (if you live in a more northerly area). Place your seeds in damp sphagnum peat in a seed tray, and then cover them with a ½ cm of soil. Keep them consistently damp and in a in a warm, sunny area (16 - 20 C). You won’t see any sprouting for six to eight weeks (or even up to 3 months in some cases).

The seedling will eventually reach a few cm in height, and look like a piece of grass with a few very small leaves on the top. They usually take around a year to reach 12 cm in height, and at this point you can transplant them to their containers, and follow the advice below.

 

Planting blueberries from young plants

For most people, it is best to plant blueberries in your garden from young plants, rather than trying to grow them from seeds. It is often the best value to buy dormant blueberry plants in late autumn or winter. The prices for dormant plants will be at their lowest as people plan and prepare for their spring gardens. As the plants are dormant, you can plant them at this time, but they will not fruit until the late spring or summer months.

Some blueberries will grow just fine when planted on their own, but some will produce a healthier and bigger crop when located near to another cultivar, such as raspberries.[v]

In order to plant them in your containers or your garden, carefully transplant the seedlings from their pots and place in holes around 40 cm deep, and twice as wide as the root structure of the plant.  Cover loosely with soil comprised of 2 parts loam, and 1 part oak leaf mold, peat moss, aged sawdust, or compost. Be careful not to plant the plant deeper than it was when in its pot.

After 2 or 3 weeks, you can fertilise your blueberry plants with a liquid fertiliser.

 

How to Harvest Blueberries

You can tell that your blueberries are ready to harvest when they have turned a deep blue colour. This usually happens in the mid to late summer. Your fruits will usually ripen in stages, so you won’t be able to harvest them all at the same time – check every few days.

Many people can’t wait to harvest their blueberries, and get to work making pies, jams, jellies, and crumbles with the fruit. They can also taste wonderful in savoury sauces and recipes. However, if you do not have use for your entire crop right away, blueberries freeze wonderfully. Line them on a cookie tray and place them in the freezer. When they have frozen solid, store them in a freezer bag or container and then use them for smoothies or baking.

 

Calendar

Sowing:

It is best to plant your blueberry plants in the late autumn (in warm climates) or in the early spring (in colder climates, such as the UK).

Harvesting:

Blueberries are ready to be harvested in the mid to late summer, when they have turned a deep blue/purple colour.

 

Blueberries are delicious and easy to grow

Now that you know just how delicious, versatile, and easy to grow blueberries can be, it is time to start planning how you will include them in your garden!


[v] https://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/blueberry.html

Reference list

Gardening Know How. (2018). Blueberry Seed Planting: Tips For Growing Blueberry Seed. [online] Available at: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/fruits/blueberries/blueberry-seed-planting.htm [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].

lovethegarden. (2020). Ericaceous compost explained. [online] Available at: https://www.lovethegarden.com/uk-en/article/ericaceous-compost-explained [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].

Perry, L. (2020). Basics of Growing Blueberries. [online] Uvm.edu. Available at: https://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/blueberry.html [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].

Ruairi Robertson, PhD (2019). The 8 Healthiest Berries You Can Eat. [online] Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/8-healthy-berries#2 [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].

Sfgate.com. (2014). Bilberry Vs. Blueberry. [online] Available at: https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/bilberry-vs-blueberry-10830.html [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].

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