Growing blueberries in the Sonoma Valley
Blueberries on cereal…blueberries with cream and sugar…blueberries on vanilla ice cream…a handful of blueberries. Or try this – fresh, chilled blueberries in a meringue shell, topped with whipped cream.
Blueberries are easy to grow in a home garden and yield abundant sweet, delicious, and colorful berries. One blueberry plant can produce 10 to 20 pounds of fruit each season.
When the topic of blueberries comes up, I often hear home gardeners tell me how difficult it is to grow blueberries. “The conditions have to be perfect,” one lady recently told me. “It’s difficult.”
Well, I don’t agree. Growing success for any plant is simply a matter of meeting the plant’s basic needs.
Here’s what you need for blueberry growing success – and the varieties you can grow in the Sonoma Valley.
Plant blueberries in compost-rich soil that drains well. Blueberries like acidic soil with a pH between 4.8 and 5.6. True, our native soil in the Sonoma Valley is not very acid – unless you live under a stand of redwoods – but it’s not hard to turn your blueberry planting bed acidic: just add lots of organic compost and planting mix (you can ask for it at the garden center). Turn the compost into your planting bed down to at least 18 inches. And from now on, add compost-rich planting mix to the bed twice a year.
When you set out your blueberry plants, make sure the hole is big enough to spread the plant’s roots without bending or cramping them. If subsoil is hard, you need to break it up with a pick – your bed has to be well drained. If this is a chore, plant your blueberries in an 18-inch tall raised bed.
Be sure to back-fill the hole firmly. Tamp the soil firm around the root ball. Leave a saucer-like depression at the top to catch water and direct it to the roots. Add compost around the plant as a mulch. Side-dress the plant with well-rotted steer manure and aged compost at least twice a year.
Blueberries are not self-pollinating (well, a few hybrids are, see below). Plant more than one variety of blueberry in your garden to insure good pollination. Different varieties ripen at different times and vary in flavor. That’s good – longer season, tasty, tasty.
Keep the soil in blueberry planting beds evenly moist. Don’t let it go dry. Mulch around blueberries to retain soil moisture during the summer.
Give blueberries a light feeding every spring; a moderate nitrogen fertilizer is best, such as 10-10-10.
Keep birds from your crop by draping bird netting over plants with ripening berries.
Grow early-, mid-, and late-maturing varieties so that you have a harvest that lasts two months or more. (You may not be able to grow early-, mid-, and late-maturing varieties in all regions.)
Types of blueberries and where they growThere are different types of blueberries for different parts of the country. Read the next sentence just so you know the differences, then I will recommend varieties to grow in the Sonoma Valley. Rabbiteye blueberries grow in the southeastern part of the country, thrive in hot humid weather, but are not cold hardy; Lowbush blueberries grow in the northeastern states and Canada; Northern Highbush blueberries grow from Florida to Maine and the northern tier states, and have a high chilling requirement that limits their adaptability; Southern Highbush blueberries grow right here in in-between Northern California and the Sonoma Valley.
Southern Highbush blueberries (the ones you want to grow) are hybrids of the Northern Highbush that have been developed to be more tolerant of hot, dry conditions and a higher soil pH. Most Southern Highbush blueberries are self-pollinating, but fruit set will increase and the berries will be larger if two varieties are planted together.
For the Sonoma Valley, the following varieties grow the best, produce the biggest crops, and have the best flavor (also listed is when they ripen and flavor): Emerald (mid-season, mild and sweet); Jewell (early to late, tangy); Jubilee (mid, sweet); Misty (early, spicy-sweet); Southmoon (mid-late, complex); O’Neal (very early, robust); Star (early, sweet); Sunshine Blue (mid-late, rich sweet) Sharpblue (early, sweet).
Steve Albert is the author of The Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide available at Amazon.com. He teaches in the landscape design program at the U.C. Berkeley Extension. He lives in Oakmont.