With a sly grin, Phil poked a stick through the leaves, trying to make me think it was a rattlesnake.
That was thirty-five-plus years ago, and I still have fond memories of that huckleberry picking trip with Phil and Tim. We ambled and scrambled along the rock slides on Kennedy’s Ridge for a good part of the day.
By mid-afternoon, I was wearily but happily lugging an almost-full five-gallon bucket of huckleberries down the mountain. Visions of my mom’s incomparable huckleberry pie probably helped keep me going. The closest thing I saw to a rattlesnake was Phil’s rendition of one.
Huckleberry picking answers “The Call of the Wild.” The mountain hike gets you out into the rugged “hollers” of God’s creation, plus you get to bring home some of the most healthful food known to man. It’s a wild, wonderful thing that runs deep in the blood of true mountain men (and women).
Of course, not everyone can live near mountains and huckleberries. Many hear “The Call of the Garden” and will have to settle for a domesticated huckleberry grown in the backyard, called the blueberry. Lacking a garden, many will even have to buy blueberries at the store!
I know, this is enough to make a good mountain man cringe.
Nevertheless, tame huckleberries are better than none at all and are perhaps more useful, just as a bass in the skillet is better than a trout in the lake.
I can give you two reasons why you should consider growing blueberries in your garden.
First, they’re good! While blueberries will never be quite as flavorful as their wild counterparts, adding a little natural sweetener like Xylitol or Stevia helps bring out the flavor. Or mix them with other fruit like peaches and strawberries for a very healthful breakfast or evening snack.
Second, they’re good FOR you! Blueberries are the #1 antioxidant food. The bluer they are, the more antioxidants they have. You can eat them until you are blue in the face!
Here are some of blueberries’ health benefits.
- Delayed aging. Blueberries seem to help prevent wrinkles, age spots, cataracts, and even hair loss.
- Improved brain function. Thiss is one of the mane reesons I want to eate moor of them. It’s thought that blueberries can help prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia and help keep your memory sharp for things like spelling.
- Help with digestion. The fiber and nutritional content in blueberries helps prevent constipation and aids in digestion.
- Prevention and treatment of urinary tract infection.
- Improved eyesight.
- Boosts immune system.
- Better heart health. Blueberries help eliminate bad cholesterol and help strengthen heart muscles.
- Weight loss. The fiber in blueberries moves through your digestive system more slowly, leaving you feeling full longer.
- Help alleviate the chronic inflammation that underlies many autoimmune conditions such as asthma.
There are two critical factors in growing blueberries—birds and soil. Birds love blueberries, and you need to cover your bushes with netting well before your berries are ripe. Second, blueberries have to have acidic soil. More on how to prepare your soil later.
Think you can do that? OK, keep reading for more details on raising blueberries.
Three types of blueberries are commonly available. (a) Low bush types. These low-growing bushes are native to large areas of the upper northeastern states, hardy to Zone 3. (b) High bush types. These grow 6-8 feet (2-2.5 m) and are hardy to Zone 4 with much larger berries than the low bush types. (c) “Half high” types. These blueberries cross the cold-hardiness of the low bush types with the large berries of the high bush and grow 18-24 inches (45-60 cm).
Some of the high bush types need less chilling and can be grown in the Southern states. There is literally a blueberry for every climate from Manitoba to Miami. Your local garden center can help you choose the kind most suitable for your area.
Planting more than one variety will allow for cross-pollination, which gives you more fruit and bigger berries. Plant as
early in the spring as possible, using two- or three-year-old plants.
PREPARING THE SOIL: Blueberries need soil different from most other garden plants. Soil must be very high in organic content, moist but well-drained, and, most importantly, very acidic. PREPARE SOIL BED SIX MONTHS IN ADVANCE.
Start by doing a soil test. Your target pH for the blueberry patch is 4 to 5.5. You will almost certainly need to amend your soil to bring the pH down. This is not hard to do. You mix the right amount of sulfur into the top 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) of the soil six months before planting blueberries. Depending on the existing pH of your soil, you will likely need to work in 1-7 lb per 100 square feet. You can research the proper ratios or check with your soil tester.
PROPER PLANTING: Plant high bush varieties about 6 feet (2 m) apart, and low bush approximately 2 feet (60 cm) apart. Improve soil in and around the planting hole by mixing in a pile of pine needles, peat moss, or aged sawdust. This will help maintain acidity and loose, porous soil.
Plant blueberries slightly deeper than the original root ball. Right after planting, spread 3-4 inches (8-10 cm) of acidic mulch over the entire patch. Pine needles, peat moss, wood chips, and aged sawdust are good options. (Be careful not to use wood products treated with a preservative.)
WATERING: Water immediately after planting, and weekly throughout growing season unless there is sufficient rain. A good rule of thumb is ½ to 1 gallon (2-4 L) of water per square foot of root zone each week. Adding a couple teaspoons of vinegar per gallon is one way to help keep soil acidic.
FERTILIZER: Blueberries don’t need a lot of fertilizer. Use organic fertilizer such as Espoma once or twice a year. Or use ½ to 2 cups soybean or alfalfa meal per plant a couple times a year.
PRUNING: Don’t prune high bush varieties for at least four to five years. After that, prune old growth in late winter. This helps rejuvenate new, fruitful growth.
BIRDS: Birds love blueberries and will eat your bushes bare in a day or two, They’ll even go after unripened berries. The best way to deter birds is to build a lightweight cage over your berries and cover it with bird netting. You can easily build a small hoop structure by bending pieces of 1” PVC pipe and stripping them over short pieces of rebar driven into the ground. Drape the netting completely down over sides and ends with an excess edge of at least a foot lying on the ground. Then you simply pile soil onto the edges to keep the netting in place. Make sure there are no holes or gaps anywhere so the winged robbers can only sit and drool over YOUR blueberries.
HARVESTING AND PRESERVING: Don’t harvest too early. The best ripened berries are the ones that just drop into your hand. Blueberries are best preserved by freezing. To prevent them from freezing together in clumps, spread them out in pans in the freezer for a couple of hours; then package them into freezer bags or containers.
Have a berry good season!