“This morning my wife and I spent three hours harvesting over four quarts of blueberries. We pick every three days, enjoying them for breakfast, evening salads, and freezing.” I received this email last week and it was not sent from a location that enjoys regular precipitation and moderate summer temperatures, the type of climate you may associate with blueberry farms. No, this email was sent by Roger Lipps, who resides in north San Gabriel, just east of San Marino. His half-acre “hobby farm,” as he calls it, also includes avocado, citrus, apple, and stone fruit trees, as well as raspberry and strawberry plantings.
Lipps’ foray into blueberry growing was borne of nostalgia. He grew up on a farm in Berkshire Hills, Massachusetts and, in his childhood, “picked wild blueberries to sell to the townsfolk for spending money.” Blueberries are one of the very few fruit crops in your local supermarket that are authentically American, with a habitat that stretches from Maine to Florida and includes Michigan, too.
There are two main divisions of blueberries: lowbush plants that grow to around two feet tall and have very sweet fruit, but require significant winter cold to bear a crop, and highbush plants, that grow up to eight feet tall and may or may not, depending on variety, require a cold winter to produce. Lipps grows two highbush varieties, ‘Misty’ and
‘O’Neal’ that do not mind warm winters and are quite suitable, based on Lipps’ experience, for Mediterranean climates like our own. Each year, Lipps harvests around 30 quarts of blueberries from 24 plants, ranging from barely producing bushes less than three years old to eight year old specimens that are 6-8 feet tall.
Let’s get down to brass tacks and see what you need to do to grow blueberries. However, before proceeding, you might want to run some cardiovascular fitness tests since, to quote Lipps, “blueberry growing in Southern California is not for the faint of heart,” even if he did tantalize me with talk of a “favorite recipe for blueberry cream pie.” Who wouldn’t want a homemade slice of that?
To create a proper place for your bushes, you will need to significantly adjust the chemistry of your soil since blueberries, which are relatives of azaleas and require similar soil conditions, demand a soil pH of 4.5-5.5 and typical Valley soil has a pH range of 6.5-8.0. Recall that the pH scale, like the Richter scale for earthquakes, is logarithmic, meaning that each number on the scale represents a 10 fold increase (or decrease) in strength compared to the number next to it. In other words, if your soil pH is 7.5, you would need to make it 100 times more acidic to bring it down to 5.5, the maximum pH for growing blueberries. Lipps advises use of a moisture and acidity meter to bring your soil in line.
“My wife and I have visited nurseries,” Lipps confided, “and overheard the staff telling customers to grow blueberries in pots only.” There is good reason for this advice. When you grow plants in pots, you can satisfy even the most exotic soil requirements. Blueberry habitat, for example, features so-called blueberry barrens, enormous stretches of land in Maine and New Jersey, whose soil is so unique that nothing will grow there except blueberries and an occasional pine tree. Yet Lipps has found a way to grow huge crops of blueberries in our own backyard.
Lipps attributes his success to two annual applications of soil acidifying sulfur, in April and October, and heavy mulching. He applies Tiger 90CR Sulphur which he procured from Whittier Fertilizer, located at 9441 Kruse Road in Pico Rivera. Application rate is 1-3 cups per bush, depending on size. “I just manually spread the granules around the drip lines,” he wrote. Blueberry roots are shallow and without a 4 inch layer of mulch, growing them would require nearly constant irrigation. Lipps has wisely installed a drip system for his blueberries and orchard trees, reducing his water budget by 30-50% in the process. His water agency restricts irrigation to two days a week, but he can abide by that schedule and still keep his blueberry bushes in good health. Lipps could not say precisely how much water a typical blueberry bush requires since that depends, in his words, “like real estate,” on “location, location, location,” but “I tend to disagree with the nursery advice of ‘full sun.’ So far our success is with maybe half a day of sun… I’m still experimenting.”
“Another important factor with regard to growing blueberries is controlling critters!,” he emphasized. “ Opossum, skunks and raccoons love moist soft mulch for digging” and so “you must fence your bushes off” and since “birds love blueberries, you must bird net the entire crop if you expect to harvest any.”
Despite “critter challenges” and “endless TLC maintenance,” Lipps says we can take solace in the fact that, according to the Wall Street Journal, “blueberry bushes have a life span of 50 years.”
Tip of the Week: If you are seeking drought tolerant candidates for spilling over block walls that will flower from now until fall, I have a few suggestions. If you like passionate blazing color, firecracker plant (Russelia equisetiformis) would be your obvious choice. This beauty offers a flaming blanket of deep red orange in addition to delicate sea green foliage that will remind you of horsetail (Equisetum spp.). If you prefer a trailing summer blaze of orange and red, you will want to choose Mexican cardinal flower (Lobelia laxiflora). This species belongs to that select group of what we like to call bullet proof, or virtually unkillable, plants. Mexican cardinal flower will trail over a wall but it is also an aggressive ground cover that will cover a vast expanse with a minimum of water although the more water it gets the faster it spreads. If you have a cooler summer experience in mind and would like, instead, drapes of refreshing lavender blue to gaze upon, then you will want to select ground morning glory (Convolvulus maritanicus) for your block wall covering. This may be the most indefatigable spill over plant you can find, displaying a tapestry of closely knit flowers that leave no room to imagine there could be a better alternative for the purpose it serves.