Acid soil, part shade, lots of leaves. Sound familiar? This is typical of many places in Cape May and surrounding counties. Wouldn’t it be great to find an easy-to-grow plant that would flower, have great fall color and even yield about 8 quarts of fruit each season? The woodlands throughout southern New Jersey are often filled with low bush blueberries, but just a bit northwest from Cape May, Hammonton is often referred to as a blueberry capital!
If your yard is a typical southern New Jersey somewhat sandy soil with some oaks here and there, blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) just might fit the bill. This tasty, succulent fruit will thrive in almost any kind of soil as long as it is acid. They flourish in sandy soil, heavy soils and even in bogs when there is lots of humus, from decaying leaves and other organic materials. A woodland plant, they need a good leafy mulch to have healthy roots. One of the nice things about blueberries is that they are not demanding and they encourage us to reduce lawn and make natural plantings under and around oak trees. They look great in borders as well as in a garden or flowerbeds. Here in southern New Jersey, sandy, acid soil is where the plants are most often found growing. In other words – its natural environment. Just think, you won’t have to rake leaves under these plants! Just pretend it is the woods and let them thrive!
Blueberry bushes have white, sometimes pink tinged bell-like blooms in May. Many times the plants are completely covered, usually just before the leaves come out and also while the leaves are unfurling. Soon light green berries replace the blooms and the plants are just covered with clusters of them. As the season progresses, they gradually turn to light and then dark blue. They can be picked for pies, jams and fruit cups and also shared with the birds.
The fall colors of the plant are often a blazing red, orange and copper combination of hues. This alone would make the plant a desirable landscape addition to most yards. Then in winter the branches are often yellowish green, as well as red tinged, which give this shrub a year-round landscape value. The plants need very little care, but if any pruning is done, it should be done immediately after fruiting so as not to cut off next year’s flower buds.
The high bush blueberry is the one most often seen in the trade and the one usually grown for the most fruit. This plant can grow to around 6 foot high if never trimmed and can also be kept smaller if pruned regularly. There is also a low bush wild blueberry that can sometimes be found. This one is a short, scraggly shrub, often not getting any taller than 2 feet. Its most often found growing in very sandy, almost sterile places in Maine and other coastal regions. There are many of these in southern New Jersey, some in the Pine Barrens. They have a smaller berry.
I have found that blueberry plants respond best to compost and organic materials added to the soil, rather than lots of fertilizer. The birds get more from my few bushes than I do, but I plan to add several new plants soon so that there will be enough for us all.
We also have blackberries, raspberries and beach plums (prunes maritime) along the south side of my garden fence. All of these like more sun than shade. They all do well in our lousy sandy soil outside the garden fence. In fact peach plum grows in sand at the shore. We will be picking beach plums as they ripen so we can freeze each handful until we get enough for jam. The plants are covered with green fruit, but the birds are getting it as fast as they ripen. We also picked blackberries and put the bag in the freezer so we can add to it each day. When there are enough we will make jam. It is fun to make sparkling jars of jelly and jam and we know ours has less sugar and more fruit than commercial products.
As I said, it is a fight to get the fruit before the birds do, but most of the plants have pretty flowers in spring, colorful fruit in summer and a troupe of birds dancing in their branches all the time eating the fruit as well as any insects that might accompany them. Sometimes I feel like a character on Little House on the Prairie when I am in my garden at dusk. Gardens and sunsets are timeless.
Lorraine Kiefer has gardened all of her life. She is a garden writer, floral designer and professional horticulturist. Lorraine teaches many classes at Triple Oaks nursery and Herb Garden in Franklinville, NJ. Email Lorraine@tripleoaks.com for garden help or leave your questions below! www.tripleoaks.com