I received a request for advice from a reader who is a fairly new gardener. Just prior to subscribing to TMG in June of 2012 she had ordered 2nd year blueberry bushes from a large conventional berry farm that has been in the fruit business for 80 years or more. With her limited knowledge at the time, she did her best to follow their detailed directions on how to prepare the ground for and plant the blueberries.
My advice of course will be much different than the advice one would receive from this berry farm.
How This Might Help You
I thought it would be helpful for all to hear what has happened so far, what this reader did, and what my comments are. Even if you don’t grow or want to grow blueberries the concepts involved will apply to many things that you do want to grow.
My reader sent pictures which was helpful in telling a lot of the story before I even read the details. She writes that the plants “took” (lived) and there was some growth this year. But basically they still look exactly like they did last season.
I’m only showing one picture because they all looked about the same. Keep in mind that this plant is now a 3rd year bush.
Here are the details my reader gave me on where the 3 blueberry bushes were planted and how the soil was prepared.
- Double dug the plots (she might mean the holes or she may have meant the entire 12 to 15 feet area) and added quite a bit of compost
- Added sulfur to what she thought was clay soil; now she feels it may be sandy soil. (The directions called for the sulfur to lower ph.) (Sulfur can be toxic to plants if too much is added.)
- Mulched with 2″ layer of year old wood chips; they have reduced to 1/2 inch; the grower instructions said to mulch with 3 to 4 inches
- She watered regularly last year to get them established
- The bushes are planted 2 feet from the foundation of their house; spaced 4 feet apart.
Where they’re Planted
In most cases the area around the foundation of a home is one of the poorest places you can choose — especially for a bush you want to produce an abundance of fruit.
By the time a home is finished and the ground leveled off — there is probably no original top soil left — and most especially around the foundation. I’d have to see with my own eyes to make sure — but from every indication I’ll bet I’m right on.
I commend the reader on double digging the soil BUT – if there is no organic matter in the soil to feed and nourish soil life — the plant is going to suffer.
If in fact — the reader’s soil is like I think it is — the little bit of compost added was not going to make a difference. It would take LOTS and LOTS of compost to do the job in soil that is poor with no organic matter. And even then — improving the soil is an ongoing process — not a one time thing.
Two Feet from the Foundation
Even if the soil around the foundation of the house were the best in the world — two feet from the foundation is too close. Although blueberries are shallow rooted — they like to spread and don’t like being crowded.
Also — when you plant, take into consideration the growth of the plant. After they grow — they will need air circulation all the way around.
Here’s the easiest test to tell if your soil is more sand than clay:
- Take a handful of moist soil and roll it in your hand to the size of ping-pong ball.
- Try to squeeze the ball of soil between your thumb and fingers in the palm of your hand. If you can make the ball into a flat noodle-like ribbon — you’ve got clay.
- If you can’t form the noodle and it breaks apart in your hand you have at least 50% sand or more.
- If the flat noodle breaks when it is less than 2 inches long your soil has roughly 25% clay.
- The longer you can make the noodle and have it stay together the more clay you have in your soil.
ph Level of the Soil
Most gardeners whether they’re conventional or organic gardeners — in my opinion — get too carried away with the ph level of the soil.
My advice: Forget ph! Concentrate on improving the soil and getting lots of organic matter in it. Nature will take care of all the complicated stuff like ph for you. All you have to do is keep adding good organic material that will break down and become organic matter —- thus increase the soil life — that will feed your plants and help them to grow.
Organic matter tends to raise ph — not lower it. And most things love it at about 6.5 to 7 — which is the ph level at which most things are better able to access nutrients.
I read just recently of a study done with Rhododendrons that are suppose to love acid soil. The research showed that as long as they had a soil high in organic matter that allowed them to access the nutrients they needed — they did just fine in high ph soil. I know that to be true because I’ve had Rhododendrons in years past that thrived in my borders with a ph of 6.8.
I’ve grown blueberries for at least 15 years in soil that is a ph of 6.6 to 6.8. They thrive and give me an abundance of blueberries every year.
I started out with a dwarf bush that gets about 3 to 4 feet tall and that wide, called Sunshine. I chose them to start because they’re known to do well in a soil of higher ph especially in the southern states. My current bushes are at least 12 years old and doing great.
In the last 3 years I’ve started 3 different high bush varieties. I didn’t tell them that they would be planted in a soil with ph of 6.6 to 6.8 and they’re doing great and don’t seem to object at all. One is about 4 feet tall. The newer ones are about 3 feet tall. All produced a good amount of berries this year.
I used aged wood chips for years when we had access to them. Wonderful as mulch. Some of it was so old that we mixed it with our then clay soil to eventually improve texture. Wish I could still get it.
It’s not real good for adding nutrients to the soil.
Grass clippings, cover crop biomass, pine tags, and straw are really good to mulch blueberries. Mine thrive on a very heavy mulching of pine tags and/or straw once each year. By the time the summer is over the mulch has all but disappeared and it’s time to add more.
My Reader asked: Are her bushes stunted?
Plants want to grow— which these plants have proven by still being alive.
I’ve had bushes planted in various places for 3 or 4 years that didn’t grow an inch. The minute I moved them to another place that obviously was to their liking — they started growing and got huge.
It can go either way.
I wish my reader had been able to read of my experiences with blueberries in the posts I’ve written on how grow them before she planted hers.
This post, plus the posts listed below should give her enough information to make adjustments and be successful with her blueberries.
Additional Posts on Blueberries:
Blueberry Bushes – Growing Blueberries (See pictures of my older bushes.)
Organic gardening is easy, efficient, effective — and it’s a lot healthier.
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