!t’s officially blueberry season in Maryland, and between pies and pastries or just popping them right in your mouth, fans of the fruit are welcoming them back with open arms (and buckets).
From late June to early August, Marylanders are getting their fix before they disappear for the year.
Have you ever tried to grow them yourself? They certainly don’t take off quite like blackberries or raspberries in our area, but if you put in the preparation and work, a sweet reward will be in bloom.
With several different varieties in several sizes, blueberries are ideal to fit in any garden or landscape.
Growing from a seed would take about three years before producing berries which seems sort of short until you think about how the last month of pregnancy is actually about 5.4 years long and how long three years of waiting for berries would seem. With the impatient folks in mind, many nurseries sell berries that are already 2 years old so the plant is a little stronger and that much closer to berries.
Before you plant a new berry bush of any kind, you’ll need to do some pre-working of your garden getting your soils pH level to the desired range of 4.3 to 5.3.
Miss this step and the chances of your plant flourishing really decline, and if you do somehow get berries, they won’t have that sweet taste you crave. (Your husband would still have to tell you they were delicious even if they make his face pucker but it would be a lie).
You can find your level with a test from your local hardware or garden center.
University of Maryland Extension can point you in the right direction of a lab in the area.
Adjusting your pH isn’t as simple as just dumping in a soil amender when you put your plant in the ground.
It’s suggested that you amend a space at least two times the width of your plant, starting about six months beforehand.
If planting in the ground, berries should be planted either as soon as spring hits or around a month before the first fall frost, which University of Maryland Extension predicts to be around mid- to late-September to be an ideal time.
You should also make sure the spot you are preparing is one that receives close to full sun.
A bit of afternoon shade can still work, but any more than that is less than ideal.
So during National Blueberry Month, is there time to get your soil ready for this September? Likely not but you can start amending it now before the ground freezes and work consistently before spring to be all set for next year.
If you’ve already been working your soil and it’s time to select plants, there are quite a few to consider.
As you are investigating, keep in mind that you should be growing multiple plants and strategically picking multiple varieties with overlapping bloom time. Even if it is a self pollinating plant, studies suggest cross pollination can lead to bigger but just as sweet berries.
For something like blueberries, are there ever too many? As a more petite fruit in general that’s easy to simply stick in your freezer for smoothies, muffins and more, it’s much easier to deal with a gangbuster harvest if you are lucky enough to get that problem.
As for the varieties, many don’t stop to think that blueberry plants are actually considered ornamental plants making them easy to fit into traditional gardenscapes. Coming in lowbush, highbush and rabbit eye as the recognized species and recognized hybrids like half high highbush, no matter if you’ll be growing in a pot, a mid-size garden or planting as a hedge, you are sure to find the variety that suits. There’s even a creeping variety.
Luckily in Maryland’s zone 7, our conditions are agreeable to most all varieties, though they do vary quite a bit. Lowbush or Wild Blueberry can grow in zones 2-7 while Rabbiteye Blueberry grows in zones 7-9, explaining why the blueberries you might see vacationing up north seem much different than when you travel south.
Highbush varieties can make a great permaculture addition to your landscape, adding in privacy, a bit of shade and blocking from the wind. Many of those, like the Reveille variety, can grow to around 6-7 feet high so keep in mind they’ll be a prominent yet pretty addition. Many too, such as Jersey or Bluecrop, are fast growing too with proper care.
There are also lowbush varieties that can make a great trim or border. A newer variety, BerryBux, provides a low shrub look, close to a boxwood, that is a little over knee high.
If your life calls for container gardening, rest assured a successful blueberry harvest can happen for you too. This method does have the advantage of being easier to amend the soil because your plant is only exposed to the soil you put it in. You’ll need a potting soil made specifically for acid-loving plants that you can mix in with regular potting soil to give you just the right mix, usually about one-third-acidic to two-thirds regular.
Regardless of variety or if planted in the ground or not, watering is key for the shallow-rooted blueberry. Most varieties require at least an inch a week, and slightly more for potted. Rain necessarily won’t be able to permeate to the roots as it rolls off the leaves like an umbrella, so do check the roots to see if they need to be watered even with a rainy spell. If you have rain barrels, their stored rainwater is ideal for blueberries to assist with keeping the pH level where they like it. If rainwater isn’t an option, several blueberry enthusiasts swear by mixing in about a half cup of vinegar per gallon of water as a good watering method if the soil needs further amending (but only gives that as a temporary effect). If you do choose hose water but live in town especially, check your water’s pH as sometimes the added chlorine can be a slow killer.
Fertilizing is an important part of upkeep for the berries, as with their specifically made commercial fertilizer it feeds the bush but also helps to maintain the ideal pH. For an easy organic acidic fertilizer, try feeding your plant with old coffee grounds at the beginning and end of growing season.
Are you noticing a theme? Many variables can affect your plant’s pH but there’s also tools to help. To know where you are and where you need to go, keep an eye on it with occasional soil testing.
Once you reach the point of producing berries, consider protecting your crop by covering bushes with bird netting or other deterrent or the birds will reap all the benefits of your hard work before you know it.
If you’ve thrown in towel on growing your own or have the hankering right now for some farm fresh berries, fear not, farmers have done all the work for you at a berry patch near you. Family Affair Farm in Easton has not only the berries but a party to go with it. The Black and Blues Festival will be a ticketed event with music as well as food and drink available on July 9th.
Godfrey’s Farm in Sudlersville is another blueberry hotspot, with an annual 5k supporting the Benedictine School and other fun blueberry events along with some great u-pick. While you may have missed some of the fun this year, there are still lots of berries to pick well into July.
Other picks for picking are First Fruits Orchard in Denton, Lockbriar Farms in Chestertown and Emily’s Produce in Cambridge who will all keep you in berries for your cobblers and ice cream.
As you pick, keep in mind that blueberries don’t ripen further after you pick them so look for a deep blue color where the sugars have had time to increase.
Truely, growing blueberries can take the patience and persistence of a monk to get going but the reward is sweet. Put in the work now and you will no longer be blueberry-less when National Blueberry Month returns next July.