There they were — plump, blue-black and filled with the promise of grazing delight — the first ripe blueberries from our late-season bushes. The plants of unknown variety were given to our community years ago by a friend and have become a favorite. Their flavored fruit ripens a few berries at a time for all of August and most of September. That’s an amazing period of ripe fruit production, with yields that increase annually, from one variety with a name we don’t know.
I know of no other blueberry variety or small fruit that produces fruit for so long or so late in the season. With blueberry season here in the mountains extending into the fall, it’s possible to eat fresh blueberries of different varieties for four months. That’s a long feast. I like to think of blueberries as the classic small-fruit plant. Not only are they native to our bioregion, fun to eat, nutritious and relatively easy to grow, they are edible landscaping plants with a long harvest season.
No matter where you live in eastern North America, from central Florida to southern Canada, you can find blueberry varieties that will thrive in your region. In the southern Appalachian Mountains, northern high-bush and low-bush varieties thrive at all elevations, and rabbit-eye varieties grow well at elevations of less than 3,000 feet or where winter temperatures don’t drop below 5.
Nutritionally, the blueberry is a powerhouse. The fruit has a high level of antioxidant effectiveness because it contains a lot of vitamin C and anthocyanin, a reddish or blue pigment in plants and some insects. Antioxidants, believed to protect the body’s cells from damaging effects of oxidation, have been linked to decreased risk of heart disease. Blueberries also contain substances that may help reduce the risk of cancer. Freezing, drying or canning into syrups or preserves are easy ways to provide enough berries to meet nutritional needs all year. It’s not just the berry that is useful. Blueberry leaves can be made into an herbal tea.
If blueberries are so good for us, and we want to include them in our daily diet, then we should consider the economics of growing our own. For the 20 minutes it takes to plant a gallon-size blueberry bush and about an hour a year of watering and maintenance (remember, maintenance is love) for a couple of years, you will get pints of berries for each plant. Within five years, you can get quarts of berries from each plant and yields of more than a gallon from mature plants. A well-tended blueberry bush can continue to yield abundant annual harvests for the next 75 years or more. What a concept — the blueberry school of nature-based economics! We’re not even talking money yet.
Consider that to buy a gallon-size blueberry bush and materials to plant it with will cost as much as four or five of the pints of organic blueberries at your favorite natural food store. Within three years, your bush will yield enough berries to pay for itself. From then on, it’s berries in the bank. In 25 years, at today’s prices, your initial $20 investment will yield a return of $800 to $1,200 in berries, not to mention the well-being, medical savings and good times along the way. It’s kind of a permaculture twist on investing for the future in its focus on renewing and enriching. Combine plant, soil, water, rock powders, mulch, shovel and sweat, and get in return multigenerational food and nutritional security. What gets any better than that?
In addition to their value in nutrition and economics, blueberry plants enhance the landscape. Blueberries have excellent ornamental value with their white spring flowers, summer berries and fiery fall color so you’ll want to take that into account when choosing where to place them. First, consider access. Place the plants in locations that give you and children an easy way to pick the ripe fruit and allow for seasonal maintenance of the plants. Put blueberries where you can keep an eye on them to know when they’re ripe to pick. Otherwise, birds will be happy to harvest your berries for you.
Blueberries, particularly the low-bush and more compact high-bush varieties, make excellent foundation plants around your house. I also like to plant them along walkways, driveways, patios, property boundaries and parking areas as food-producing hedges. These food-producing hedges, or fedges, can be just a blueberry fedge that contains early, midseason, and late varieties or the blueberries can be planted with other small, fruit-producing bushes for deeper diversity. Blueberries do well on moderate slopes. If you plant on a slope, make sure it’s one you’re willing to clamber on during harvest time.
Blueberries are easy to grow if you follow a few guidelines. Give them at least six hours of sun a day in the growing season, preferably in the morning and early afternoon. The plants will live in light shade conditions, but berry production will be reduced significantly. Lack of light is a limiting factor for most fruit-producing plants. Blueberries thrive in moist, well-drained, acidic soils high in organic matter. If you have poorly-drained, heavy clay soil, add lots of organic matter to the soil and plant your blueberries high either by mounding up planting soil above the existing soil level or putting your plants in raised beds. I recommend an annual fall fertilizing of your plants with an organic fertilizer. You should avoid liming your plants or placing blueberry bushes in soils that have been limed heavily or are too close to concrete foundations, walks, drives or patios.
Mulch your plants well with 1 to 2 inches of finely-ground mulch such as composted pine bark soil conditioner or well-aged sawdust. Pine needle mulch also works well for blueberries. Mulch helps hold moisture in the soil and suppresses weeds in the blueberry plant’s root zone. Weeds, particularly grasses, are a problem for blueberries, which have a fine root system in the top 6 inches of the soil. If you get grasses growing near your plants, don’t pull them because that will damage the blueberry plant’s roots. Instead, cut the weeds back, smother them with several layers of cardboard, and put mulch back on top of the cardboard. Mulching will reduce the need to water your plants once they are established. During periods of hot, dry weather and fruit ripening, however, your blueberry plants will love you for giving them a deep watering weekly.
And you’ll love your blueberries for their abundant reciprocity as they reward your care with a few lifetimes of feasting on their nutritious bounty.
[Chuck Marsh lives at Earthaven Ecovillage near Black Mountain, where he teaches about permaculture design, useful plants and earth plastering at the Earthaven Learning Center and has a small nursery. Contact him at 669-1759.]