Little fruit packs punch
WE OFTEN think of blueberries as a cool climate fruit, but, in fact, it is easy to grow them in the home garden. There are commercial blueberry farms on the northern New South Wales coast, producing more than 80% of Australia's blueberry crop, so obviously the climate is not a barrier. Just make sure you choose low chill varieties, and get the position just right.
Blueberries are long-lived shrubs reaching a height of 1-2.5m. The bright green leaves darken as they age and are small, oval-shaped and about 1-2cm long. Flowers occur at the tips of the branches and are followed by bunches of small blue fruit that may have a bit of a waxy bloom. Blueberries are self-pollinating.
A single blueberry bush can produce 4-7kg of fruit in a season, depending on the variety and the growing conditions. The fruiting season is July-April, with peak production from November-January.
Blueberries can be a bit fussy. They are related to rhododendrons and share a love of moist, well-drained acidic soil with plenty of organic matter. The ideal soil pH is 4.5-5. Outside of this range, they will struggle. Growth will be weak and spindly and fruit production will be poor. So test your soil first, and add sulphur powder to lower pH if necessary. Never use lime or dolomite around blueberry bushes.
The low-chill varieties suitable for our climate prefer a warm, frost-free situation. Good air circulation will help to prevent fungal problems. Their fine, shallow roots make the plants especially sensitive to soil compaction, poor drainage and root disturbance. Protect the root zone with a thick layer of organic mulch.
Blueberries grow well in pots. Use a potting mix formulated for azaleas and camellias as this will be more acidic than a normal potting mix. Mulch the surface of the pot, just as you would if you were planting in the ground.
You will also need to be a bit careful about fertilising as you don't want to raise the soil pH. Fortnightly applications of liquid fish or seaweed fertilisers is beneficial. Because the flowers form at the ends of the shoots, you need to encourage the growth of plenty of vigorous shoots.
Pruning is also beneficial, and is best done in early spring. Remove damaged branches and spindly growth. Young bushes don't require much pruning. Some experts suggest the removal of flowers for the first two years to allow the plant to establish.
Freshly picked blueberries are absolutely delicious, and more research is emerging that confirms their status as a superfood. They have plenty of fibre, virtually no fat, loads of vitamins A, C and K, are high in antioxidants, and contain calcium, potassium and zinc.
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