To the village, through Mortenson’s pasture to-day:
Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe! You ought to have seen!”
Blueberries, by Robert Frost, 1915
Robert Frost wrote this poem about wild blueberries while in the northern woods of Massachusetts, almost a century ago. In Frost’s time, blueberries’ growing in a southern California garden was as likely as were bananas at the North Pole.
Consider that just a few minutes ago I picked almost a pound of fruit from one of the blueberry plants in my garden. This picture, a small portion of the harvest, is my evidence.
It was only about three years ago that low-chill blueberry varieties found their way into our gardens in a big way. They are now one of the most popular fruit sold by garden centers.
If you still think that blueberries are a northern specialty, consider that last year California blueberry farmers, mostly in the southern San Joaquin Valley, shipped over 8 million pounds of fresh blueberries. Production has doubled in the past five years and blueberry plants are now grown alongside strawberries and oranges in thousands of Orange County home gardens.
By selecting the right varieties, a local gardener can pick fresh blueberries for up to four months of the year. And blueberries aren’t shy about fruiting; a mature plant will reward the gardener with six to ten pounds of fruit each year. That’s a lot of fruit and compares to about 24 of the baskets you see at the supermarket.
‘Sunshine Blue’ is the favorite for most home gardeners. It needs no special cross-pollination, tolerates higher pH soils, is evergreen, has attractive pink flowers and is naturally dwarf, growing to a mature size of about three feet.
Just as I do, most people grow blueberries in a pot. For the first couple of years an 18 to 20-inch pot will do just fine. Plant them in the same soil as you would an azalea and feed with an organic fertilizer, just like you would for the azalea. Put the pot in a sunny spot and keep it well watered. Plan on one plant per blueberry-loving member of your household.
Blueberries are almost the perfect fruit: beautiful, ornamental and easy to grow. Blueberries are also literally bursting with nutrients and health benefits, yet very low in calories. Researchers recently analyzed 60 fruits and vegetables for their antioxidant capability and blueberries came out on top.
Packed with specific antioxidants called anthocyanidins, blueberries reduce the likelihood of cataracts, glaucoma, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, peptic ulcers, heart disease and cancer. In laboratory studies, researchers found that blueberries helped protect the brain from stress and may reduce the effects of age-related conditions like Alzheimer’s or dementia. In addition, researchers found that diets rich in blueberries significantly improved the learning capacity and motor skills of aging animals, making them mentally equivalent to much younger ones – I’ll take a double helping please.
If you haven’t joined the blueberry bandwagon, now is the time.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar