Blueberries are one of the most rewarding plants you can have in your garden. They look great all year round: they have beautiful delicate lily-of-the-valley-type flowers in spring that lead to a mass of berries turning to blue in summer, and they have lovely autumn and winter foliage colour as well. My friend Steph has blueberries in a pot on her deck solely for its decorative properties – she is happy for the birds to eat the berries. I don’t know how she can just watch those divine berries disappear. Whilst I appreciate the aesthetics of the plant (and have a nice hedge of them against a ponga fence), it is for the berries that I grow the plants in my garden. I look forward to eating handfuls of berries fresh from the garden, putting them in my breakfast smoothies and fruit salads, or freezing them to use throughout the year in muffins, sauces, jams and more.
Blueberries are the “queen of the berryfruit” as they have no thorns, are not invasive, and have no need for support or spraying. They do require quite an acid soil – they are in the same family as azaleas and rhododendrons; they like soil with good organic matter content and need to be adequately watered particularly in summer. They don’t have any particular pruning needs – just keep them pruned to your desired size and shape. The biggest problem I have is keeping the birds off them: the first year mine fruited I decided that I would net them the moment I saw any ripe fruit. Time went by and the fruit didn’t seem to be ripening, and then I noticed that the numbers of fruit had reduced significantly. Those sneaky birds were picking off the nearly ripe fruit one at a time before I had a chance to notice they were ripening. Now I have a netting structure set up to protect the berries from early in the season but last year I had to use some bird scaring tape as well because they birds were still determined to find a way in. One particularly enterprising blackbird was bouncing up and down on the netting and pecking through the net as he got close to the berries.
Blueberries are native to north America and Canada and have been collected by the native peoples for thousands of years. Blueberries were used in a wide range of foods including drying the berries for use during the long cold winters. Widespread cultivation didn’t occur until the 20th century and they are now grown and enjoyed worldwide. There are three different types of blueberries: low-bush, high-bush and rabbiteye. Rabbiteye varieties are suitable for a wide range of conditions (except very cold). The plants are evergreen and produce high yields of fruit. They require low chill hours (less than 600hrs below 7°C) so are even suitable for subtropical situations. They are less fussy about their soil requiring less acid soil than other blueberry types and are reasonably drought tolerant. They will start producing fruit in 2-3 seasons.
Whilst some varieties are self fertile, cross pollination will improve fruit size and yield. Pollination is by bumbles or honey bees. I have a mix of rabbiteye varieties that have been bred specifically for the home garden: Blue Dawn, Blue Magic and Tasty Blue. These produce fruit from December right through to February. It will take a couple of years for them to get established and then they will fruit copiously. For best flavour, leave the fruit on the plant for 7-10 days after they have turned blue (you have to have a bird net for this). Ripe fruit are very easy to pick – you just “roll” them in your fingers and they will come off easily without having to pull them. They ripen over quite a long period so there will always be a handful ready to pick for your breakfast.
Here are some of my favourite blueberry recipes: