Blueberries can be a pain in the butt

Submitted PhotoDon’t let these delicious-looking blueberries fool you. They’re a nightmare to grow in this neck of the woods.

Yes, those spring catalogs make lots of promises — big crisp apples, luscious peaches and plump blueberries. Avoid "the blues." Let me save you from yourself on the temptation to purchase blueberry plants. Okay, I will let you decide, but let me explain.

Have your heard the term "right plant right place," or "wrong plant, wrong place"?  The latter is how I would describe growing blueberries in our region of Minnesota. Wrong soil, wrong ph — just wrong.

Blueberries are an acid-loving plant, much like azaleas, with a preferred ph level of 5.0 or less. The soil in this region hovers around 6.5 or so. The difference of 1.5 for a ph soil level might not seem like a big obstacle to overcome, but in the soil world it is huge to change and maintain! Soil amendments that can be used to lower the ph for blueberries are: peat moss, aluminum sulphate, and sulpher. Depending on their form these elements aren’t always readily available and take years to break down into a useable material. During the growing season, using a fertilizer product designed for acid-loving plants is also recommended. Every year, you will have to continue applications of the elements, fertilizer, topdressing and attempting to dig in peat moss. It is like they want a moist forest soil — but in full sun.

Regular watering is critical. The peat moss used in the planting hole can dry out quickly. Once peat moss dries out, it is nearly impossible to re-wet. May sound strange until you try it once, like trying to soak plastic — it resists saturation. Blueberry plants need annual pruning as well, and if you don’t fence them, the rabbits will be happy to help. So you might hammer in a stake next to plant, to remind yourself where it had been! Blueberry flowers (your potential berries) can also be harmed by late frost, so be prepared to cover plants if necessary. If you are not convinced yet, just know that frustration and aggravation will soon follow. Year after year as you pick your 5 measly blueberries, you'll have wished you followed my advice. Yes, I have fallen into the blueberry trap myself. Luscious visions of huge, sweet blueberries in my cereal every morning.

I have made 2 attempts to grow blueberry plants. I hesitated before my second attempt, but ordered 24 plants and tried it again anyway. They were planted by the book, using the correct elements, peat moss worked into the planting hole, full sun, zone 4 varieties, irrigation lines etc. etc. The plants survived, but never thrived. After 4 years of little to no growth and few if any edible berries, I'd had enough! I personally pulled each plant up with my bare hands tossed them on a pile and burned them, and have felt sweet revenge ever since. A little garden rage after those plants wasted my time and space, again! I used to own a 2 acre strawberry farm and also had ½ acre in raspberries, so I do have a little berry experience. To blueberries I say: never again. Thinking of trying Saskatoon berries instead, with a blueberry look and the flavor of blueberry/cherry/vanilla. Saskatoons are the most cultivated fruit plant in Canada. Until a few years ago, I had never heard of them. They are a variety of the genus ‘Amelanchier,’ known by its common name ‘Service Berry,’ very popular plants in our region. The story I heard about the name ‘Service Berry,’ is rather interesting. The Service Berry is typically the first plant (a rather gangly single or multi-stemmed shrub) to be blooming in the spring. Back in the "olden days" these branches were used at the funeral service held in the spring when those that passed in the winter could finally be put to rest.

If you have had success with blueberries (success as defined as healthy, growing, thriving plants and picking loads of berries) than you my friend are an awesome gardener!

There are many new varieties of blueberry plants available, and many from the U of M plant breeding program. I wish they would breed out the ph issue! With so many easy to grow fruits like strawberries, raspberries and apples, why struggle with the difficult ones.

I say, let Michigan grow the peaches and blueberries and let's focus on plants we have more assured success with. Resist, my friend.

I will be teaching a 1 p.m. class at Drummers this Saturday on Garden Styles. Class is FREE, come on over! Only 70+ days until the first Mankato Farmers Market.