Garden Q&A: plant several blueberry varieties
Q: I would like to know if you have any opinions concerning the best varieties of blueberries for the Pittsburgh area for rapid production that continues for a good part of the summer. I plan to put several bushes in next spring and want to know what kind to get.
A: Before planting blueberries in your yard, it is important to understand a little more about the different varieties available on today's market. After all, you don't want to plant a bush that grows 7 feet tall (unless, of course, you've got plenty of room for it!). Blueberries fit into a handful of different categories, each with its own climate preference and growth habit. Most fruit and berry catalogs list varieties by one of the following categories:
• “High bush” blueberries are very common and, as the name implies, they can grow quite large — up to 6 feet or more. Varieties in this category are further separated into northern and southern types, each doing best in their namesake's climate. Here in Western Pennsylvania, northern high bush blueberries are a good option. High bush berries are delicious and productive but may not be well suited to smaller landscapes since they grow so large.
• “Low bush” selections are small in stature, which might sound great for containers and small spaces, but the berries are small, too, and they aren't as productive as other types. They are often called “wild” or “Maine” blueberries and grow only a foot tall. I don't often recommend them to local gardeners.
• “Half-high” varieties are the result of hybridization between “high bush” and “low bush” types. They are very hardy and reasonably productive. Since they grow to about 3 feet in height and are so hardy, many “half-high” types are great for growing in both containers and the ground– especially in Northern areas like ours.
There are literally dozens and dozens of blueberry varieties in each of these categories to pick from, and, as long as they are hardy to USDA zone 6 or below, they'll be a good choice for your garden. I always recommend planting three or more varieties if possible, not only for better pollination but also to extend the fruiting period. Select an early, a mid, and a late season ripening variety for season-long fruiting. Here are a few of my personal favorites:
• Northsky — This is a great blueberry for very cold climates as it survives to -45 degrees F and is officially hardy from zones 3-8. It only grows about 18 inches in height and two feet wide. Northsky's berries ripen in July from snow white blooms. Mid-season ripening.
• Chippewa — Upright growth with great berry quality. This half-high variety has exceptional cold hardiness and some of the largest berries of its type. Grows up to 3 feet high and prefers zones 3-8. Mid-season ripening.
• Polaris — Growing upright and reaching 3 feet in height, this selection has light blue berries that ripen very early in the season. It is hardy from zones 3-8 and is very tolerant of long, cold winters. Polaris bears the heaviest crops when grown with another variety to ensure optimum pollination.
• Elliot — With medium-sized fruits and very late production, Elliot is a great harvest-extending variety. The flavor is very mild. Mature plants reach 4 to 5 feet in height and are very cold tolerant.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.
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