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You Can Grow Blueberries in Jamaica Plain

All about the Blueberry, an American Original that you can grow in your own garden or container.

There are four things I want to write about blueberries: some ways to help blueberries grow well in JP gardens, the story of a determined woman with vision and cash who created domestic blueberries as we know (and grow) them, a special trick to use with berry pies, and a hill just outside Camden, Maine.

To start with the hill, there’s a trail that winds up to the top through rocky fields of blueberry bushes. If you’ve read the children’s book, Blueberries for Sal,  you know just the kind of hill I mean – rounded, lots of granite showing, lots of blueberries. There’s a great view of Penobscot Bay and the islands and what look like little toy boats from the top, but the real reward is the blueberries you pick from the hardy little bushes on the way up and down. You avoid the berries that still are pinky-purple and can be a little sour, looking for the sweet deep blue ones. There are plenty of them, even if you have to go off the path and scramble a bit over the granite outcroppings.

In Blueberries for Sal, a little girl follows her mother as they pick blueberries and a little bear follows its mother as they eat blueberries, and they get mixed up for a little while, but they get straightened out and everyone gets his or her fill of berries before they come down from the hill.  And it turns out that’s good for everyone, because the berries are not only delicious, they are good for you, too.

Yes, not only bursting with anti-oxidants to fend off cancer and a good source of vitamin C, it turns out that blueberries have something in them that helps keep aging memories sharp!  And they help you lose weight and see better at night and prevent arthritis; they keep your skin radiant and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. And right now the Blueberry Growers Council is probably looking for some researchers to prove that if you eat lots of blueberries, people will love you more.  Seriously, the blues have become superstars of healthy foods.

Back to the hill. I’ll tell you the truth; I didn’t bring any of those berries on the hill in Maine back to share with others. Like the bears (who sometimes eat nothing but blueberries when they are in season), I ate every berry that I picked right there where I picked it. But sometimes one does end up with a bucket of berries, or a flat of berries from the market, and that’s the time to be inspired to do some special baking: blueberry muffins or pancakes, and if you are from New England, maybe some blueberry buckle.  

If you are inspired to go for the blueberry pie, let me tell you my aunt’s secret for berry pies: instead of trying to decide if you want the taste of fresh berries or the sweet smooth taste of cooked berries, you can have both. You first bake the pie shell by itself (I love the strategy of weighting the pastry down when you bake it so that it won’t puff up – my aunt actually had a little jar of buckshot she used! Dried beans work, too. ) Then after the pie crust cools, you put three quarters of the cleaned, washed berries in it, and you take the remaining quarter of the berries and make a simple cooked sauce with them. You pour the sauce over the fresh berries. It doesn’t matter what kind of berries you are using – blueberries, raspberries, strawberries – you get the explosion of fresh fruit flavor with the sweetness of the sauce and a shiny glazed finish!

But to return once more to that hill in Maine: the secrets to successfully growing your own blueberry bushes, so that you can forage bear-like in your back yard for berries, are all right there among those wild shrubs. First of all, they are growing in acid soil. The bedrock of New England, where blueberry bushes have been growing for hundreds of years, is granite. As granite weathers and erodes year by year, its decomposing chemicals make the soil around it acid.  

That means that to grow blueberry bushes successfully, you need to find out if your soil is acid enough for them. This past weekend Jeremy Dick came to the Paul Gore - Beecher community garden in JP to do a demonstration planting of some new blueberry bushes as part of Boston Natural Areas Network Seed, Sow and Grow program.  He explained to a couple of dozen interested gardeners how to prepare your soil and other must-dos for growing blueberries here in JP.

But before preparing to plant those bushes, it’s time to consider the woman who domesticated the wild blueberry. 

Elizabeth Coleman White appears to be a contradiction in terms. She was a nineteenth century beauty who did not marry. She was not a formally trained botanist, but she played a vital role in developing a national agricultural industry. She was the head of a huge corporation, and at the same time she was dedicated to providing exceptional care for the families of the workers.

At the turn of the last century, blueberries were a wild plant that had eluded efforts at domestication. They grew wild throughout the pinelands in southern New Jersey, and though many locals had dug up bushes and tried to grow them at home, it just didn’t work. Many of these “Pineys” were seasonal workers in the local cranberry bogs who picked blueberries (or huckleberries, as they were known locally) in the summer.

And then, in 1911, Elizabeth Coleman White, who had taken over the local cranberry business from her father, read that the Department of Agriculture was interested in developing the blueberry as an agricultural product. She recalled later that she was thrilled at the prospect, as she had often talked with her father about developing a companion crop that would be marketable in the months before the cranberries ripened.

White wrote to F.C. Coville at the U.S.D.A. and offered him the use of Whitesbog, the cranberry growing facility, for his research, and he accepted.  Coville had a plant he had found in New Hampshire which had produced berries as big as ½ inch in diameter – huge compared to the tiny little wild berries. White determined to find Jersey specimens that would match that, and developed a kit she provided local pickers to measure the size of the berries, preserve the berries until she could see them, and mark the bushes producing the big ones. 

She paid pickers the equivalent of up to $300 for identifying a prize bush, and offered to have the plant named after the picker.  Through identification and cross-breeding, White developed hundreds of varieties; Coville scrutinized them for taste, size, productivity and robustness -- and crossbred the best of the best.

The rest is history; by 1916 White was marketing big Tru-Blu berries (using cellophane for the first time in the U.S.) and selling domesticated varieties to nurseries.  Whether we buy frozen blueberries at the market or plant berry bushes to grow our own, we will be eating the fruit of Ms. White’s labor.

Information on Growing Your Own

You can look forward to harvesting blueberries from your own bushes if you are able to meet these requirements: you have sunshine (6 to 8 hours of it), you are willing to amend the soil in the ground or a container to make it blueberry-friendly, you are willing to keep down the weeds and to water through the dry spells in the summer (mimicking Maine’s early morning coastal fog?).

First in the steps of growing your own is testing your soil.  Blueberries in the wild grow with lots of decaying leaves around them, which holds moisture in, often in sandy soils – with good drainage.  So for maximum plant production, you want to have acid, moist soil with good drainage, and you need to have a good balance of the most helpful minerals.  

Two nearby testing sites with recommendations for amending your soil that work for our growing area are at the University of Massachusetts  and the University of New Hampshire.  

UMass is cheaper, but at the community garden blueberry planting session Jeremy recommended the UNH testing, because they provide information about how to amend your soil and adjust the acid level of your soil organically, while the UMass service only provides information about inorganic chemical resources. Both websites have information about collecting and shipping your soil samples for testing.  

If you are planting in containers, you can skip the step of sending your soil to be tested, because you can create your own soil.  You will want a container for at least five gallons of soil, at least twenty inches across (those shallow roots spread out wide). Some people prefer to grow their blueberries in containers because the soil needed is quite different from that for most vegetables. A dwarf variety or a drought resistant variety is especially good for containers.

Once you have your soil in order, you can go about choosing the varieties of berries you want to grow. You need at least two and preferably three different kinds of blueberries for cross-pollination, and to extend your blueberry harvest season. (One plant will grow by itself; it just won’t produce as many berries.) Lots of the traditional varieties have the word Jersey in them, and we know the reason why. Even more have the word blue.

The keys to success in growing blueberries seem to be:

Weed control/Mulching. You can put down cardboard – which will disintegrate over time -- and cover it with salt marsh hay or leaves you’ve picked up from somebody’s curbside leafbag—especially in a neighborhood with lots of oaks and pines, because they contain acid. (Jeremy brought leaves from Milton for the demonstration planting at the community garden; he said picking up bags of curbside leaves is usually a great way to get mulch, though once he got a dead squirrel as well.)

Watering.  For the first few weeks, while the roots are getting established, and then when there are stretches in the summer with no rain.

Pruning. Blueberry bushes throw off suckers, so every year there is new growth. It’s a good idea to take off 1/3 of the plant each year once the plants are three years old – especially brittle old wood --  to keep the plant trim and efficient. The best time to do this is on a warm day in February when the plant is totally dormant but your hands won’t get too cold.

Who gets the berries? If you don’t want the birds to eat your berries up, you may want to construct some kind of netting cage. They’ve been watching the berries ripen, too, and they won’t necessarily wait for them to turn deep blue before they pick their own.

Everybody wants their share of the garden blues.

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