The Casual Gardener: It makes sense to grow your own blueberries
As the popularity of blueberries has increased so has the number of gardeners growing their own. Here's the lowdown on the best technique and top varieties
I'M NOT sure I'd tasted a blueberry before I was in my 40s but in the space of a decade they've gone from novelty fruit to ubiquitous staple.
They turn up in my porridge, salad and even the occasional G 'n' T. They arrived on the scene with a raft of other stuff branded ‘superfoods' but appear to have outlasted that particular fad. Nowadays they're just a straightforward excellent source of vitamin C with soluble fibre that's good for our digestive system. They're also rich in phytochemicals, an antioxidant that helps protect the body against a host of diseases.
Blueberries are available in all supermarkets and even in corner shops and garages, flown in from every corner of the world 52 weeks a year. Visit the supermarket today and it's likely you'll see Polish blueberries on the shelves. Not exactly a handful of food miles but at least it's northern hemisphere.
While arguably good value per pound weight when compared to raspberries grown closer to home, blueberries can still be expensive. It's unsurprising therefore that an increasing number of gardeners are opting to grow their own Vaccinium corybosum.
Bushes can be expensive – quality plants from £15 upwards – but with a punnet of blueberries in the supermarket costing up to £20 per kilo, one of these long-lived bushes should easily pay for itself after a couple of years.
The first thing to consider when growing blueberries is your soil. They are ericaceous plants, which means they like acid soil. For the scientists out there that's a soil with a pH of between 4 and 5.5, similar to what rhododendrons and camellias like.
It is possible to lower the pH level of soil by adding sulphur but if your ground isn't suitable, raising the plants in pots filled with ericaceous compost is much more practicable. As with all container gardening, this means they'll need regular watering. However, with acid-loving plants you need to be wary of tap water as this will raise the pH level. Rainwater, harvested in a butt, is therefore the best option.
It's recommended to plant at least two different varieties of blueberry to ensure cross-pollination. While a single bush will produce fruit, yields will be higher and the fruits bigger if more than one plant is grown.
Position them in full sun or at best light shade, leaving a gap of around 1.5m between each plant. You may also wish to prepare a framework that can support a net to protect the berries from birds when they are in fruit. It shouldn't be necessary to prune young plants but as it matures ensure the bush's centre is open to increase airflow and minimise the threat from pests and diseases. The shape you're looking to achieve should look something like a two-dimensional wine glass.
In terms of recommended varieties, ‘Chandler' will give you large and plentiful fruit, while ‘Spartan' has a relatively long cropping period of up to three months, hence its RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM).
‘Duke' has good yields and flavour, while the large-fruited ‘Nelson' is one of a number of self-fertile varieties, the heavy-cropping, miniature-sized ‘Tophat' being another.