Grow Blueberries Without Fear

Unlock the mysteries of growing delicious blueberries, and reap the bounty of this finicky fruit that has eluded gardeners for centuries.

Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto.

Perhaps in the past you made the decision to plant your own blueberry bushes, inspired by visions of steaming stacks of blueberry pancakes drizzled with homemade blueberry syrup. You probably picked what you thought was the perfect spot to plant, with rich soil and lots of sun. And you likely worked the soil well, mixing in lots of organic material and fertilizer. Then you brought your precious new plants home from the nursery, carefully planted them, and spent the winter dreaming of fresh berries. When spring finally arrived, you eagerly watched as your blueberries pushed out fresh green leaves — only to yellow, drop, and die.

If that outcome sounds all too familiar, you’re not alone. At one time, gardeners and horticulturists alike believed blueberries would never be domesticated. The berry that Native Americans considered a gift from the Great Spirit, that colonists came to rely on to add sweetness and variety to their diet, and that drew people into swampy barrens each summer consistently refused to thrive when transplanted to gardens or cultivated fields, no matter how carefully it was pampered.

Blueberries are one of the only fruits with a natural blue coloring. Photo by Jim Still-Pepper.

The cultivation of blueberries remained a mystery until the early 1900s, when U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) botanist Frederick Coville joined forces with New Jersey cranberry farmer Elizabeth White to grow the first commercial blueberries.

Prior to their collaboration, Coville experimented by growing plants in glass to study how their roots grew. During these experiments, he discovered why blueberries had always failed in cultivation, and how to correct the problem. When White read Coville’s findings, she promptly wrote him to offer a collaboration: If he agreed to plant an experimental plot in New Jersey, she’d supply the wild blueberry genetics and land to grow them. With her agricultural experience and his botanical knowledge, they succeeded in bringing blueberries to the mainstream market for the first time in history.

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