Blueberry plants have swept into Orange County gardens in a huge way. Across the United States, but especially here in Orange County, blueberries are now nestled comfortably into our gardens alongside old favorites like oranges, lemons, avocadoes, strawberries and tomatoes. Even along the immediate coast, gardeners are discovering that by choosing the right varieties blueberries make an easy and tasty addition to a garden. Are we becoming “Blueberry County”?
Most of us grew up thinking of blueberries as northern specialties from the cool, damp confines of Canada and our most northern states. Blueberries would only occasionally come before our eyes; even then only in small, expensive trays in the specialty section of the grocery store. Over the past ten years however much has changed. In fact, did you know that most of the blueberries bought at your local supermarket are grown right here in California? These adaptable new varieties are called Southern Highbush blueberries and meet most of the requirements for growing in our coastal Orange County climate.
With the right variety and a few simple steps you can grow these productive and attractive plants in your garden. We start with the right variety, especially in the mild coastal climates of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. ‘Sunshine Blue’ is certainly the most famous for our area. Most varieties of blueberries require cross-pollination, fruiting best only when paired with another variety. But even a single ‘Sunshine Blue’ produces baskets of delicious blueberries. Ideal for gardens, it is evergreen, bushy, small in stature (usually under three feet), offers a long fruiting period and has pretty pink flowers. Finally, unlike its more northern cousins, ‘Sunshine Blue’ needs almost no winter chilI. ‘Misty’ is another great-flavored choice for coastal areas, growing larger and doing better when pollinated by another variety.
I generally suggest growing blueberries in containers, although with the correct soil preparation they can be grown in the ground as well. Start with about a 16 or 18-inch pot. Blueberries are related to azaleas and require the same acid conditions. This is easy to provide by using a high quality azalea/camellia planting mix in the pot. I use it straight out of the bag, with nothing added except for a handful or two of an acidic slow-release organic fertilizer. Set the new plant into this mix and you’re almost ready for blueberry pancakes.
As with most any other fruiting plant, place the potted blueberry in a sunny spot on the patio or in the garden. Like azaleas, keep blueberries well watered. Their shallow root system does not provide much drought tolerance.
In our climate, blueberry plants should be fed monthly from early spring through early fall with an acid fertilizer. Now, here’s where I’ll try not to confuse you . . . blueberries do not like their nitrogen in what is called a “nitrate” form. In fact, applications of nitrate fertilizers can severely damage blueberry plants. Lots of popular garden fertilizers contain nitrate forms of nitrogen. Be careful. Turn the bag or bottle over and read the ingredients. Within the fine print you will see the nitrogen source as either “nitrate”, “urea” or “ammoniacal”. Be sure it is not “nitrate”. If you don’t want to bother, just use an all-organic acid fertilizer like I do.
I began picking a few fruit from my ‘Sunshine Blue’ about a month ago and I’ll pick more about every week or two until July. Along the coast you may get a small crop in the fall or early winter as well. Once a plant is mature, in about five years, a healthy blueberry can produce ten pounds or more of delicious fruit each year. Plan on one plant per blueberry-loving member of the household. Blueberry plants will grow better and produce higher quality fruit if pruned in late fall or early winter. In fact, blueberries are so prolific that the plants may over-produce, especially when young, setting too many fruit. This sacrifices the overall vigor of the plant and reduces the size of the individual berries. Perhaps in a column this fall we’ll discuss pruning in more detail.
Native American plants, Blueberries are almost the perfect fruit: beautiful, ornamental, easy to grow, and they have the highest concentration of antioxidants and lycopine of any fruit. Blueberries are good for you, but I just love to eat them.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar