Digging Deeper Vol. 19

Consider Blueberries As Perfect Choice for Edible Landscape

As summer gets underway, there is still time to get out and install additions or make adjustments to our ever-changing plans for the home landscape, as long as we utilize container-grown plants with healthy and stable root systems.  With the early fruits and vegetables just becoming available on our local farmers’ markets and you’re getting your first tastes of the season, you may decide that you want to have your personal “home-grown” source of some of these special, but simple to grow “edibles.” 

The outdoor rooms of your living space should be an extension of your interior rooms and all should “flow” together in regards to meeting your needs and the needs of your family.  As for retired folks like Pat and me, we rent a small duplex that easily meets our needs for interior space, but outside, we have the equivalent of a landscape “postage stamp.”

Needless to say, we have to make careful choices in regards to utilization of our limited space, and while we are attempting to “permaculture design” our outdoor living area with edible plants, we still want our overall landscape to look appealing to all eyes in our neighborhood.  So we’ve been gathering together some special native shrubs of the large genus Vaccinium, but you probably know them better as “blueberries” or “huckleberries,” depending on how old you are.

Vaccinium is a genus of shrubs or dwarf shrubs in the plant Family Ericaceae. The fruit of many species are eaten by humans and some are of commercial importance, including the cranberry, blueberry, bilberry or whortleberry, lingonberry or cowberry, and huckleberry. Like many other ericaceous plants, they are generally best grown in somewhat acidic soils.

For Pat and me, blueberries have been an integral part of our home landscapes for basically all of our lives, and the 1.5 acres of rabbiteye cultivars on my home farm in Lee County are now more than 40 years old, still healthy and bearing lots of delicious and nutritious fruits.  They have never been sprayed with any pesticide, and the only fertilizer that has ever been applied was an annual one-quart portion of all-natural cottonseed meal per plant and that was only done for their first 10-15 years of cultivation.

Grow More Varieties for Berries All Summer Long

There are almost 450 varieties in the genus Vaccinium, and most of them are native to the cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere, but US commercial production is concentrated in three types: rabbiteye, highbush and lowbush.  Although rabbiteye blueberries dominate the Southeast, here in the Upstate and throughout much of Middle Atlantic growing area, both rabbiteye and the northern highbush can be grown. 

According to the GardenWeb sources, “Rabbiteyes (Vaccinium ashei) are native to the southeastern United States, and are supposedly called rabbiteye because the berries turn pink before they go blue, reminiscent of the eye color of a white rabbit.  Highbush blueberries (V. corymbosum) are found in the wild in northeastern North America. And while the name highbush implies it might be the larger plant, it is actually smaller than rabbiteye.  Highbush earned its name because it is taller than lowbush blueberries, the other species important to the blueberry industry.  Lowbush (usually V. angustifolium or V. myrtilloides) produce very small berries used primarily in baked goods.

“You’re lucky in the Mid-Atlantic region, because you can grow rabbiteye or highbush, but each has its pros and cons.  Rabbiteyes have a lower chilling requirement, so they will be apt to bloom earlier, making them more susceptible to spring frosts.  Highbush blueberries aren’t immune to this by any means, and their bloom time may only be a week or two later.  Still, a week or two can be the difference between no crop or a diminished crop and a full crop.  In spite of blooming later, highbush berries ripen about a month earlier in the summer, so picking season temperatures will be more pleasant than that of the rabbiteye, which ripen during the dog days.  Highbush blueberry fruits are usually larger, so your bucket fills more quickly, and the fruit is jucier, with a thinner skin, resulting in high quality after freezing.  Rabbiteyes are a little tougher and though they freeze beautifully, the skin becomes tougher after freezing.  For eating fresh out of hand, rabbiteyes seem to be a little sweeter, but after freezing, the tenderness of the highbush berry might edge out the rabbiteye,” according to the expert’s opinion.

“Rabbiteye plants can get quite large, up to 20 feet if allowed to grow unchecked,” he continued, “If you wish to keep them at a height where you can easily reach all the berries, you will need to prune vigorously after a few years of growth.  In commercial operations, they are often hedge-rowed to accommodate mechanical pickers.  Highbush plants average about six to eight feet, though some may top out at ten to twelve.  Both benefit from rejuvenation pruning after a few years, removing the oldest canes entirely as they get unproductive.

“Both need well-drained acid soil and supplemental water during dry times, but rabbiteye are a bit more tolerant of drought and less-than-ideal pH,” he concluded, “I’ve grown both and found that highbush are susceptible to quite a few diseases.  Rabbiteyes are practically disease free, and they tend to have much longer productive lives, but I’d recommend that you plant both.  You will have blueberries almost the entire summer and you’ll get to decide for yourself which you prefer for flavor.  You’ll find that each species has cultivars that vary in sweetness and taste. My favorite highbushes are ‘Spartan’, ‘Bluejay’ and ‘Bluecrop’, and with rabbiteyes, you can’t go wrong with ‘Premier’and ‘Tifblue’.  Both are
highly productive and good quality, with ‘Tifblue’ being the latest ripening.  You should get almost three months of fresh blueberries with these five cultivars.  I would wager that 20 years from now the rabbiteyes will still be with you, and the highbush will not.”

Blueberries High in Nutrition, Low in Calories

Once you have found that perfect “mostly sunny” spot for planting blueberries in your edible landscape, Pat and I can personally tell you that the rabbiteyes are very good to eat in many different types of recipes.  We can also assure you that these easily-grown shrubs will are colorful showpieces in the ornamental landscape, especially the deep red fall foliage color.  They sucker extensively, but growth is quite controlled, so they make a fantastic hedge plantings, and 18 plants spaced properly should result in a full 100 feet of hedge in 6-10 years.

Besides being easy to grow and simple to freeze (you don’t even wash them), blueberries are also rated very high on nutrition and low on caloric content.  The following research also provided on the web (www.nutritionandyou.com) describes just how nutritious and healthy blueberries are as a food, so we heartily recommend them as a win-win-win choice for your edible landscape:

Health Benefits of Blueberries

Blueberries are very low in calories. 100 g fresh berries provide only 57 calories. However, they possess notable health benefiting plant-nutrients such as soluble dietary fiber, minerals, vitamins, and pigment anti-oxidants that contribute immensely towards optimum health and wellness:

      *Blueberries are among the highest anti-oxidant value fruits. The ORAC value of 100 g fresh blueberry is 5562 TE (Trolex equivalents). Their antioxidant value largely derived from poly-phenolic anthocyanidin compounds such as chlorogenic acid, tannins, myricetin, quercetin and kaempferol.

      *In addition, these berries have other flavonoid anti-oxidants such as carotene-β, lutein and zea-xanthin.

      *Altogether, the phyto-chemical compounds in the blueberry help rid off harmful oxygen-derived free radicals from the body, and thereby, protect the human body against cancers, aging, degenerative diseases, and infections.

      *Further, research studies suggest that chlorogenic acid in these berries help lower blood sugar levels and control blood-glucose levels in type-II diabetes mellitus condition.

      *Fresh berries contain a small amount of vitamin C, vitamin A and vitamin E. Altogether these vitamins work as potent anti-oxidants, which help limit free radical mediated injury to the body.

      *The berries also contain a small amount of B-complex group of vitamins such as niacin, pyridoxine, folates and pantothenic acid. It contains very good amounts of vitamin B-6, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid and folic acid. These vitamins are acting as co-factors help the body metabolize carbohydrates, protein, and fats.

      *Furthermore, they contain a good amount of minerals like potassium, manganese, copper, iron and zinc. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps controlling heart rate and blood pressure. Manganese is used by the body as a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase. Copper is required for the production of red blood cells. Iron is required for red blood cell formation.

By Guest Author Randy Peele

As has always been the case with my garden writings, I would like very much for all of you to interact with me in “Digging Deeper.”  Recommended topics, critiques, opinions, questions, etc. all are encouraged and welcomed, and I look forward to hearing from you by e-mail at email@headleenursery.com.