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Between the Rows: Blueberries offer many benefits

  • A high bush blueberry bush at Wilder Hill Gardens in Shelburne Falls. For The Recorder/Pat Leutchman

  • Blueberries Metro Creative Graphics

  • The sweetheart bouquet that Lilian Jackman created for the bride and groom which includes, calla lilies, lisianthus and lantana.


Friday, August 05, 2016

Blueberries offer many benefits to the gardeners who want to grow more of their own food.

When I lived in Heath, I had access to the low-bush blueberry farms that operate there, but high-bush blueberries were among the first shrubs I planted.

I do not prefer one over the other, except that the highbush blueberries are larger and easier to pick.

Nowadays, low-bush blueberries to plant are much more available than they once were.

We are also fortunate that we live near Nourse Farm, which sells a variety of high-bush blueberries from Patriot and Reka — they begin bearing earlier in the season than Jersey and Nelson, which are late season bearers.

You can have fresh blueberries from your garden over a long season, into September. Having two or more varieties will also give you the cross pollination that is needed for good fruiting.

Requirements

Blueberries are native to North America and so are very hardy. They thrive during the cold of New England winters. They need a lot of sun, and cannot tolerate standing water in the spring. Well- drained soil with plenty of organic material is ideal. At the same time, they need adequate water during the growing season.

Here in New England, we don’t usually have to worry about having acidic soil, although we might have to work a little to get the soil to a 4.5 to 5.5 pH level.

A soil test will give you the pH and indicate how you can go about improving it for the blueberries. Fortunately, you can find fertilizers for acid-loving plants, like Espoma Holly Tone, or other fertilizers designed for rhododendrons or azaleas, at your garden center, or even soil acidifiers.

Fertilizing should be done in the spring, and a 2- to 4- inch bark mulch is a good idea. Besides conserving moisture, mulch will keep adding organic matter to the soil over time.

Once blueberry bushes are planted, they are very easy to maintain. They suffer very little from pests or diseases.

They will not need pruning for several years. For myself, the only pruning I ever did was removing broken or dead branches in the spring.

However, there is a benefit to keeping the interior of the bush more open. Easier picking if nothing else.

Once you are regularly harvesting your berries, your biggest problem will be the birds.

I wish I had considered this when I planted my Heath blueberries in a long hedge. It was very difficult to manage a long netting arrangement to protect the berries. My four Greenfield blueberry bushes are planted in a square that will ultimately be netted in a block that is 10-by-10-foot square.

Benefits

There are many benefits for the gardener and the consumer of blueberries. A benefit for the gardener is that, unlike raspberries that need to be picked every day, blueberries will hang on the bush for several days until you can pick them. This means you can harvest a couple of times a week instead of making time every day.

And of course, I have already mentioned how little work it takes to maintain the bushes.

I have not mentioned their beauty, the tiny bell shaped blossoms in the spring and the beautiful red color in the fall. Blueberry bushes are a good alternative to the invasive euonymous, the burning bush.

For the consumer, the eater of blueberries, the first benefit is the berry’s deliciousness. Then there are the many ways it can be prepared, pies, muffins, salads, on your cereal or ice cream, or out of your hand.

Not only is there all that delciousness, there is the fact that blueberries are very good for you. Blueberries are ranked as having one the highest capacities of antioxidants among all fruits and vegetables. Antioxidents battle the free radicals that can attack healthy cells in the body. Cell damage contributes to cancer, heart disease, and decline in the immune system.

Anthrocyanins, the color pigments of red, purple and blue, are powerful antioxidents. They have been connected to lower risks of some cancers, urinary tract health, memory function and age related diseases. Needless to say, other fruits like strawberries and raspberries also contain anthrocyanins, but blueberries are richer.

To get the real health benefit of blueberries it would be necessary to eat about two cups of fresh berries a day, but I feel healthier with every cup of berries I enjoy.

Fortunately, fresh blueberries can be bagged up and popped into the freezer very easily and will lose little of their nutritional value. Blueberry crisp gives me a taste of summer all winter long.

Even without growing your own it is easy to find fresh blueberries in our area. Farm stands will be selling them as will farms like the Benson Place in Heath. You can also pick your own low bush berries at the Benson Place, or high bush at Wilder Hill Gardens in Conway.

When I was picking berries at Wilder Hill Gardens, I also got to admire the flower arrangements that owner Lilian Jackman was creating for her daughter’s wedding. Every single arrangement included a bit of blueberry foliage and fruit. The blueberries were a particular request of the bride and groom. For myself, I consider those blueberries a wish for years of a sweet, healthy and fruitful life together.

Pat Leuchtman had written and gardened since 1980. She lives in Greenfield. Readers can leave comments at her Web site: www.commonweeder.com