June 25, 2022

Down the Garden Path: Guest columnist series--Growing blueberries is worth the effort

Editor’s note: As of April 29, Richard Hentschel has retired from University of Illinois Extension with nearly 30 years of service as a horticulture specialist and educator in northern Illinois. As this growing season begins, a selection of qualified Extension guest columnists will occupy this space. In time, another Extension educator will join our communities and likely continue this column, a long-standing Kendall County tradition.

Blueberry bushes not only provide delicious and nutritious berries, they also display pretty flowers in spring and spectacular fall foliage in shades of yellow, orange and red.

Blueberry plants can be challenging to grow but are worth the effort. They prefer acidic soil with a pH around 5.0. (pH is a scale of acidity from 0 to 14, 7 being neutral.) Our northern Illinois soils are not naturally acidic, and a soil test will indicate the current pH of your soil. To increase the acidity of soil, amend the soil with peat moss and add soil sulfur, according to the directions on the package, when planting. Annual applications of sulfur will be necessary to maintain the soil acidity.

Blueberries also require well-drained soil enriched with organic matter, a site in full sun and supplemental water when Mother Nature doesn’t provide at least an inch per week. Mulching with an organic mulch like wood chips, composted leaves or pine needles will control weeds and conserve soil moisture.

Highbush types and hybrids are most successful in our area. Blue Jay, Bluecrop, Elliott, Northland and Patriot are cultivars often found at local garden centers. Blueberries do not require different varieties for cross pollination but produce more and bigger berries if planted with a few of their cousins.

Dig a hole for each plant at least twice as wide as the pot it was growing in and position it at the same depth it was growing in its pot. Mix abundant amounts of compost with excavated soil and fill in the hole. After planting, give plants a deep watering to help them settle into their new home. Space plants 4 to 6 feet apart.

Blueberries should be fertilized a week after planting with 1 ounce of a fertilizer containing magnesium (20-0-10+5) and then with ammonium sulfate every spring as new growth begins.

If you have the heart, it is best to remove the blossoms from plants the first couple of years so they can use all their energy to produce shoots and roots.

Young plants require little pruning, but damaged or spindly growth should be removed. Mature plants should be pruned when they are still dormant in early spring.

Wouldn’t it be worth a little extra work to pick a handful of fresh blueberries for your bowl of cereal or smoothie every morning? And imagine taking a bite of homegrown blueberry pie.

• Have questions for the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners? You can call, email, or visit during the growing season. Learn more about connecting with the Kendall County Master Gardener Help Desk at go.illinois.edu/HelpDeskMGdkk, or call 630-553-5823 or visit during office hours, 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 7775-B, Route 47, Yorkville.