NGA Articles: Blueberry Prescription

Blueberry Prescription (cont)

By: Lee Reich

Soil Requirements

Blueberries are finicky about soil; it must be moist yet well aerated, very rich in humus, and very acidic (pH 4.0 to 5.0). Wild blueberries often inhabit boggy areas, but the plants are actually perched on hummocks; likewise, give your backyard blueberries well-drained soil. The shallow roots of blueberry plants compete poorly with weeds or lawn, so make sure the ground beneath each bush is also free of weeds and grass.

Before you plant, test the soil's acidity. If the pH of your soil is not sufficiently low (acidic enough to suit blueberry bushes), apply sulfur, available at garden centers. A very alkaline soil, with pH above 7.5, needs drastic treatment. Once you've used sulfur to adjust pH initially, provide long-lasting acidity as well as humus by mixing a generous bucketful of peat moss into the soil at each planting hole.

Finally, right after planting, blanket the ground with 3 inches of organic mulch, and water thoroughly. The mulch keeps the soil moist, and as the lower layers decompose, they enrich the soil with humus. Sawdust (not from treated wood) is ideal, but any organic material is satisfactory. Regular watering is critical during the first growing season.

Beating the Birds to the Berries

The third part of the prescription for blueberry success is dealing with birds. The same delightful garden visitors we attract with feeders and birdbaths will strip bushes of a large portion -- sometimes all -- of a blueberry harvest. Gardeners have come up with all sorts of ways to thwart birds: balloons painted with large eyes, strips of foil-covered Mylar, pie pans dangling above the bushes, fake owls and snakes, black cotton thread woven among the branches. These devices all work for a while, and they work best on flocking birds, like crows. However, many birds that enjoy blueberries, including robins, jays, and orioles, are not flocking birds.

Birdproof netting is an effective way to fend off birds. Don't just drape a net over the bushes, though. Harvest will be a hassle, and birds can still fly underneath the net.

The ideal protection is a walk-in birdproof cage. Support posts can be permanent or temporary, but put the net up only during harvest season, so the net lasts longer, and the rest of the year the birds can flit about and hunt for insects.

A blueberry cage need not be an eyesore. It might resemble a Victorian folly or a rustic arbor. For my cage, I pound 8-foot lengths of metal conduit into the ground, connect their tops with PVC pipe, and drape on the net. Any netting with 1-inch (or smaller) mesh works. When harvest is over, I pull out the conduit, take apart the PVC pipes, roll up the net, and put it all away until the following year.

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