Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Blueberry growing intense in Colorado

by guest writer Joel Reich*

Many Colorado gardeners have long lamented their inability to grow blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum and related species). The problem stems from the fact that most of Colorado’s soils are slightly to highly alkaline, above pH 7.0 (neutral). Blueberries must have acid soils (a pH of about 5.5) in order to thrive. Unfortunately, there is just no practical way to manage Colorado soils in order to produce a pH that low.

The good news for blueberry lovers is that, with extra effort, there is a proven way to grow delicious blueberries in your Colorado garden. The keys to success are 1) plant the blueberry bushes in a medium that is primarily (or entirely) composed of sphagnum peat moss. This readily available material has a pH of approximately 5.5, so it is perfect for blueberries. Two further keys to success are: 2) make sure that the root zone always stays moist (even during warm, dry spells in winter), and 3) protect the bushes from drying winds during the winter. This can be done by wrapping the bushes with burlap or old sheets while they are dormant.

Any planting method that incorporates these three key elements should lead to success, so feel free to be creative. For those who want an established recipe for success, follow the instructions below. Keep in mind that you will need to have at least two blueberry plants of different varieties (for cross-pollination purposes) in order for the plants to set good crops.

For each plant:

- Dig a hole that is 20” deep, 30”long and 20” wide.
- Get a plastic-wrapped bale of sphagnum peat moss (3 cubic feet).
- Punch about a dozen holes in the bottom of the plastic wrap.
- Drop the bale, holes down, into your pre-dug hole. You can grow more plants in a row by dropping multiple bales in a trench. Different plants are necessary for cross-pollination as noted above.
- Cut an 8”x 8” “X” in the plastic on top of the bale and fold back flaps.
- Plant a bare-root blueberry plant directly into the peat moss (Do this in early-mid April).
- Re-close the “X” using tape, leaving about a 3” hole in the middle to accommodate the trunk of the bush.
- (optional) Install drip irrigation line by cutting a small hole at either end of the bale and feeding the line through the holes, resulting in an irrigation line that runs on top of the peat but under the plastic.
- Fertilize in early May and early July with a balanced fertilizer for acid-loving plants (i.e. Miracle Grow for Acid Loving Plants).
- Water and provide winter protection as discussed in keys to success above.
- Provide protection from “critters” as animals love blueberries too.
- Enjoy blueberries year after year!


* Joel Reich is CSU Extension horticulturist at the Boulder County Extension office in Longmont, CO where he trials blueberries and other small fruits.
Photo credit: Dladek


56 comments:

  1. That's great, but what about alkaline water from the spigot?

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  2. shouldn't Colorado gardeners just focus on berries that thrive here??

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    1. Please let me know of any berry that will thrive here. :)

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    2. How about starting with a few of these: Kinnikinnik, Serviceberry, Elderberry, The two native strawberries, (wax) currant, gooseberries, Wintergreen, Lingonberry, Cranberry, Rubus Idaeus Raspberry, and Chokeberry.
      The first three do very well in Colorado Springs.
      If you are patient, magnolia vine does well, but is best grown from seed. They take well to stick fences and arbors built from fallen Siberian elm branches.

      I find that pine hugels are a very good inexpensive alternative to containers or digging up vast swaths of dirt. You can get free pine clippings on craigslist or freecycle, usually.

      I hope this helps.

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    3. We live at about 8,000' near Royal Gorge. Strawberries and Goji Berries do excellent up here with very little hassle.

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  3. Municipal tap water is alkaline because water providers are required to maintain water pH at 7.5 or higher so potentially harmful metals are not leached from plumbing. The pH of the peat soil can still be maintained at an acid ph because the media is buffered aginst pH change and through the addition of acidifying fertilizers. The true test is in the results and Joel's plants are prospering after several years in his test trials.

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    1. Say I am on my second year of healthy bushes-with one drawback...I did not slit holes for drainage on the bale bottom before dropping into my trench! Do you think I will see my buds come to life yet this year?? They are still reddish and very small, and my canes are nice and green.

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  4. When planting in a "normal" garden soil I certainly recommend small fruit that prosper here such as raspberries, strawberries and currants (see CSU Extension growing fact sheets at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/pubs.html#gard_fv). The herculean growing regime described here for blueberries are obviously for those with the time and wanting a challenge. The appeal of what is exotic, rare or hard to grow will always be there for some gardeners. Over the years I've found saying something doesn't generally grow here is a challenge issued for some people and they will find a way to grow it.

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  5. I agree with Carl's comment regarding growing fruits that don't "want" to grow here. I certainly do not advocate that Colorado become a major blueberry producer. The technique I suggest for growing blueberries is meant for those who want a challenge and/or those who developed an abiding love of fresh blueberries when they lived elsewhere and would like to produce a few pounds at home.

    In regards to alkaline tap water: One way to counter the potentially pH-raising effects of our tap water would be to treat your irrigation water with a bit of household vinegar. Fill a one gallon vessel with tap water. Use a pH test kit to test your water. Add a small amount of vinegar, then test the pH again. Repeat this process until you have lowered the pH to the desired level. Make note of how much vinegar it took to do so. Now you know how much vinegar it takes, per gallon of tap water, to bring your irrigation water to your desired pH.

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    1. For my Albuquerque blueberry challenge-can you expand on the idea that pH makes needed minerals available(for chlorophyll production)? Is it possible to use magnesium to offset the need, and succeed at 6 pH?

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  6. I love your blog and advice. Coming from the south, where you could grow nearly anything but rocks, it is sometimes hard to find the best advice on planting in a new area. I sometimes find your blog even easier to comprehend than the CSU fact sheets. Thanks and keep up the great work!

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  7. Wow! it was an Interesting News That Any planting Method That incorporates these Three key elements should lead to success I feel free to be creative.

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  8. Great advice. I have been wanting to do this for years, so maybe I will this year.

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  9. Could you use a compost that includes pine needles to increase the acidity of the soil?

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  10. Pine needles aren't a leaf of choice for composting because they are resinous and break down slowly. They also don't produce any more acid a compost than other orgainic leaf material. See the CSU Extension composting fact sheet for details at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07212.html

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  11. any recommendations on varieties you like best?
    thanks!

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  12. You could try any two varieties among the Northern Highbush types (two needed for cross pollination) 'Blue Crop", 'Blue Gold', 'Blue Ray', 'Duke', 'Elizabeth', 'Elliott', 'Jersey' or'Reka'.

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    1. Reka and Rubel do very well in the Springs

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  13. Just moved here from Massachusetts where I grew blueberries with most of my effort was in protecting from critters and birds. Soil pH was no problem. I had planned to try them here using a 2006 CSU Blueberries in Pots method with a coir/peat mix (http://www.specialtycrops.colostate.edu/scp_exp_demo/blueberries.htm#intro), but this sounds easier. Do you need to replace the peat moss / replant after a few years?

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  14. Message posted from Joel Reich ... How long can blueberry bushes live in their peat bales? Quite a while... My experience, and that of several friends, is that blueberries can live in their original peat bales for at least 12 years (that's how long it's been since I first started planting that way, and haven't had any death/decline yet). I believe that part of the key to long term success is making sure you do not elevate the pH in the bale over time. Fortunately, peat moss is very resistant to pH changes. You should consider using fertilizers that are designed for "acid-loving plants", as they usually contain sulfur or another acidifying agent. You may also consider treating your irrigation water with household vinegar in order to bring the pH down to the 5.0-6.0 range. A pH test kit and a little experimentation should yield a recipe for how much vinegar it takes to adjust a given amount of your tap water (but check periodically, because the pH of tapwater can change).- Joel

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  15. Wondering how much sunlight they need and how much shade they can tolerate.

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  16. In hot climates blueberries are sometimes planted in partial shade. If they get morning sun and afternoon shade in an east exposure, that would work well to minimize late afternoon heat. Hours? Probably 4 to 6 hours of sunlight. Too little sunlight will tend to reduce fruit yield.

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  17. Anyone know where to purchase the Blue Gold variety here in the Front Range?
    I've tried several of the major garden centers and it seems they have only North Country/North Land

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  18. I could only find bags of peat moss that were compressed. Would this work or should I take some of the peat moss out of the bag?

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  19. Carl,

    Can you recommend which varieties of Blueberries might work here?

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  20. Anyone have pictures of blueberries damaged or killed by 2,4D? Each year I lose berry bushes and an apple tree plus damage to centipede lawn due (I believe, strongly) to 2,4D spraying by the county road crew. Can it drift 300-600 ft and kill blueberry bushes, apple trees (newly planted) and centipede lawns? Anyone heard of this? Thanks.

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  21. When can bare root blueberries be planted in the Denver area? Thanks!

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  22. What OMRI-approved fertilizers would you recommend?

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  23. I just purchased a 100 gallon watering trough to grow my blueberry plants. Should I use entirely sphagnum peat moss or should I mix with topsoil. If mix, what percentage each? Thank You!

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  24. Use all peat as done in the method above to get the acid soil. If you add alkaline Colorado soil it will defeat the purpose.

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  25. We purchased two highland blueberries from Albertsons Supermarket out of all places. We put them in last summer and they yielded about 1/2 cup. This year they are full of blossoms so it's looking hopeful.
    I water them daily and they are placed on the west side of the house in my wet garden so they get afternoon to late evening sun. They are practically under two pines so I think they like the needles. I haven't done much else, only amended the soil about five years ago when I first put in the bed.

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  26. It would be helpful to know what town you are located in when you write of your success.

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  27. Bare root fruit plants are generally planted early in spring so they can establish roots before the onset of hot weather. March or April on the Front Range.

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  28. How should I plant an already established bush in a 3 gal pot? Should I use the same plan mentioned already?
    Allen

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  29. Thank you for important and practical, tried methods. We much appreciate it

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  30. Has anyone had luck with this method on the Western Slope? I live in Grand Junction and love blueberries!
    Thanks

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  31. When choosing two varieties, do you need to match the harvest season (early/mid/late) as well as "Northern Highbush"?

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  32. Carl, I'm assuming you are using 3 cu ft compressed bales of peat moss. Correct?

    Also, is it necessary to put a layer of mulch on top of the bales? I've been told it should be pine bark mulch but don't know whether to use nuggets or shredded. Thanks.

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  33. Are deer a problem for blueberries? If so, how do I best protect them? Thanks.

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  34. I'd like an answer to an earlier readers question. Can we use the compressed bales of peat moss (say from Lowes). I've only ever come across compressed peat and was wondering if that's what was used. Thank you!

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    1. Exactly what you need to do. Just hollow out a root ball sided hole in the bag top. I have two plants per bale. Everyone must ensure their roots don't freeze during the winter-a problem if you use above ground pots.

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  35. Can someone comment on the success of growing blueberries in pots here in Denver?

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  36. Hi, I have planted blueberries in pots with only peat moss in April of this year (we live in Littleton). They are on the south side of the house and get morning and early afternoon sun. So far, so good! I was wondering where I should place the pots during the winter? If I just wrap them in old sheets and water during warm spells will that be sufficient. Thanks for all the information, my young kiddos love blueberries! And so I!

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  37. Also, I am very into gardening as organic as possible and love using worm castings as fertilizer. Do you know how this would work with the blueberries? Thanks again!

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  38. Can I plant 3 year old blueberry plants that I order in this method if they do not come bare root?

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  39. How much water does a blueberry plant growing in peat moss need each week?

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    1. The weekly need is reduced greatly by having a plastic surround. I only splashed a little twice weekly, and have a full complement of berries this Spring in Albuquerque. Also depends on how much heat your peat bales get, and how many drain holes you make.

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  40. I LOVE blueberries! Over the past four years I've planted a total of 19 bushes as well as 2 vines of Concord Grapes where I live south of Atlanta. Suddenly I have the opportunity to move to southern Colorado to start a ministry foster home. As I was walking around my back yard I realized I was going to be giving up many things this morning; the blueberries were one of a couple of things I mourned leaving. I appreciate that you come up with ways that someone like me can grow something "not normally" grown in Colorado. THANK YOU FOR MAKING MY DAY!

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  41. I just wrote about my love of blueberries, before I looked up where "Front Range" Colorado was. I am moving around the Alamosa area in the San Luis Valley; does the same principal apply there? Thanks for your help!

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    1. You have the same soil type, decomposed granitic, with perhaps more loam. Everything else remains the same.

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  42. Coffee grinds are very acidic, I add them to my soil.

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  43. Do I need to grow two different blueberry bushes side by side? What if I plant them in the middle of July? Can I plant them under/near a tall blue spruce tree?

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  44. Some of my blueberry bushes bloomed in September of last year. What's up? They had also bloomed in the spring.

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  45. Out-of-season flowering is occasionally seen on a variety of plants including shrubs and many fruit trees. It is thought to be of no particular significance and seems to have no long term effect on the plants.

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  46. Joel,

    Thank you for posting this method. I was referred to your information by Kelly Grummons. After 2 failed attempts with blueberries in Colorado I believe I have finally succeeded, thanks to you. A recent pH test measured 4.5, with the surrounding soil reading about 8. My question now is: How, and with what, should I fertilize?

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    1. As Joel mentioned in his March 9, 2010 comment, "You should consider using fertilizers that are designed for "acid-loving plants", as they usually contain sulfur or another acidifying agent. " Ammonium sulfate is an example. Miracle Grow's Mir-acid is a soluble, acidifying fertilizer sold for acid loving plants that you can occasionally find in local nurseries or online. You can add it in the irrigation water.

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