Common lowbush blueberries—sometimes known as wild blueberry—are smaller than their cultivated relative, the highbush blueberry, growing to a maximum height of 18–24″. They have spreading underground rhizomes or runners and can grow to take over large areas, forming a low, dense groundcover. Leaf color varies from deep glossy green to a more silvery-green, and many types have bright fall foliage, ranging from bright yellow to deep burgundy. Prolific white or light pink bell-shaped flowers require pollination by bees for fruit to set. The ripe berries—attractive to bears and other animals—are small and sweet, with a powdery blue appearance and light green interior flesh. These plants are the main source of commercial blueberries in North America. A very hardy plant, your lowbush blueberry will tolerate many challenging soil types, though it does require winter chilling.
Top Hat blueberry is a dwarf variety that’s (quite literally) fruitful and beautiful, no matter the season! Prior to producing berries in the summer, these bushes will display lovely white flowers that make them an excellent decorative plant as well as berry factory. In the fall, the leaves turn a deep red that’s so lovely, it makes it worth berry season being over. Well…, almost. Thanks to its small stature, these plants can be grown directly in the garden or in a container depending on your space availability.
Seed: When growing blueberry from seed, it’s necessary to stratify them for 60–90 days at 41 degrees before planting.
Seed Depth: <1/16″
Space Between Plants: 2′
Space Between Rows: 2–4′
Germination Soil Temperature: 60–70°F
Days for Germination: 30–50
Sow Indoors: Seeds can be started at any time of year.
Sow Outdoors: Plant out only after all danger of frost has passed.
Vegetative: Lowbush blueberry can be propagated by taking stem cuttings, division of suckers or rhizomes from mature plants, or layering. An acidic medium like composted pine bark and/or pine straw mixed with well-rotted manure will work well for rooting. For any method, keep the growing medium moist but avoid overwatering. When you are transplanting a lowbush blueberry, plant it slightly deeper than it was in the pot.
Grows best in cool climates, tolerating winters with low temperatures regularly below 0°F. This hardy bush occurs naturally in alpine and sub-alpine areas, cliffs and ledges, grasslands, and open woodlands. A true native of northeastern United States and east and central Canada soils, wild blueberry bushes be found as far south as West Virginia and west as Minnesota and Manitoba.
Natural: Full Sun. Will tolerate partial shade.
Artificial: Will grow well under fluorescent lamps. Needs at least 10 hours of light per day.
Soil: Prefers well-drained sandy or loamy soils with a high amount of organic matter. A pH of between 4.0 and 5.2 will keep plants healthy and nourished. This acidic pH can be attained with amendments of sulfur. If your pH is above 6.5, it would be a good idea to plant in containers or a raised bed filled with an acidic soil mix. If your soil is very heavy, consider adding a coarse sand.
Soilless: A mix of equal parts sand and composted pine bark and/or pine straw will provide the acidity and drainage necessary for healthy plants.
Hydroponics: Will thrive in a variety of hydroponic or aquaponic systems. One big advantage to using hydroponics when growing blueberries is that pH and nutrient levels are easily controlled to meet the needs of this picky plant.
Aeroponics: You can quickly produce rooted cuttings in your aeroponic system.
Water: Requires moderate to heavy levels of water. Regular watering during the growing season is necessary to maximize fruit production. They don’t like waterlogged soil, so ensure good drainage. If the water you irrigate with is very alkaline, you can add vinegar to increase its acidity and avoid raising your soil pH.
Nutrients: Requires a low level of nutrients. When transplanting, mix composted leaves or pine needles in a bucket, which will provide organic matter and help keep soil pH low. Slow-growing plants will benefit from periodic applications of fertilizer containing phosphorus and potassium. You can also add cottonseed meal, an amendment with a low pH.
Foliar: Will benefit from a foliar feedings of kelp solution or nettle tea. If your plant is looking yellowed, it may be a sign the pH is too high, resulting in the inability to take up necessary iron. Foliar applications will boost nutrients and give you time to amend the soil with an acidic mulch or side dressing.
Pruning: Will benefit from a thorough pruning every 2–3 years. There is no need to prune lowbush blueberry bushes in the first 2–3 years, but you should remove flower buds for 2 years after planting to give the plant time to put its resources into becoming fully established, resulting in greater fruit yields in later years. Once established, annual pruning is usually unnecessary unless the plant is very crowded or has a significant amount of dead wood. Every 2–3 years, burn or mow back the majority of the plant in the late winter. These plants will not produce in the following season, so divide your efforts over alternating areas for uninterrupted production.
Mulching: Use mulch to help keep soil moist and reduce weeds. High-acid mulches like pine bark and aged sawdust will keep soils in the required pH range.
Deficiency(s): Iron deficiency results in new growth producing yellow leaves with green veins. This is usually caused not by a lack of iron, but by an alkaline soil pH. Amend soil with acidic mulches or sulfur to lower your pH back into the acidic range, or if growing hydroponically, use pH-lowering products.
Rotation: A 3- to 4-year rotation out of blueberries will break insect and disease life cycles. However, this may not be practical for the small-scale home gardener.
Companions: It’s a good practice to plant several varieties of lowbush blueberry bushes to allow for cross-pollination. Another benefit is that you can extend the harvest season by planting varieties which mature at different times. Because of their requirement for acidic soil, areas where blueberries will grow are unlikely to provide a hospitable environment for many other garden plants.
Harvest: Pick when berries are plump with a grey-blue color and about to fall off the bush. Fruits with any red or green coloration are not ready. The sweetest berries can be harvested by gently shaking the branches of the bush and catching the berries that fall. Harvest time can vary from May to late summer, depending on where you live and the variety of your blueberry bush, so it’s best to harvest based on color rather than specific timing.
Storage: Fresh berries can be refrigerated for later use. Generally, maximum storage time is about a week.
History: Although some relatives of the lowbush blueberry may have existed outside of North America prior to trans-continental travel, the lowbush blueberry actually originated in North America in the northern regions of the US and in Canada. The Native American tribes of these regions would use blueberries as a food source all year round by eating them fresh in the summer and then smoking them in the fall to help them keep throughout the winter.
Preserve: Berries can be frozen. Spread a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze before packing into freezer bags. Berries can also be made into jellies, jams, and preserves. A boiling water bath canning method should be sufficient due to their high acidity. They can also be dried or dehydrated in an oven set to low or by using a dehydrator.
Prepare: Berries are best eaten fresh and whole, with the only prep being a quick rinse just before popping ’em in your mouth. Top cereals and yogurt with fresh berries for added sweetness. You can also bake pies, muffins, pancakes, cobblers, or tarts with blueberries. Can be made into a syrup or added to smoothies for an antioxidant punch to your diet.
Nutritional: Blueberries are low in calories, with only 41 calories per 1/2 cup. They are a good source of dietary fiber and contain manganese, potassium, copper, iron, zinc, vitamin(s) K, C, E, and niacin.
Medicinal: Contains resveratrol, the compound found in red grapes, which is currently under investigation for its health and longevity promotion. Blueberries are one of the most potent sources of antioxidants. Lowbush blueberries contain the highest levels of polyphenols and anthocyanins. These chemicals are being researched for their role in reducing the risk of diseases such as inflammation and cancer. A tea made from the leaves of blueberry plants can be used as a blood purifier, for treatment of infant’s colic, to induce labor, and after a miscarriage.
Perfect on top of a cake, crepes, or french toast, this homemade Blueberry Syrup is sure to please!
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