Blueberries without the blues
Fruits and Nuts
Most people will be familiar with the commercial blueberry, found in many fruit and vegetable shops and supermarkets during the summer months and sometimes at others times of year. While many of these are imported, blueberries grown in Ireland make up a significant and growing proportion of the total sales.
Blueberries grow best in well-drained, acid ground, and thrive in temperate climates with generous summer rainfall. They are particularly suited to the moist climate and peaty soils found in Ireland.
Blueberries require good drainage yet an adequate supply of water during the growing season, especially during fruit production. They do best in a dry acid soil, though they will tolerate less-acidic conditions if mulched with acidifying material such as peat, pine needles or pine bark. Peaty soils that are prone to water-logging can be improved with the addition of copious amounts of coarse sand, combined with deep drainage. Conversely, the water retention capability of excessively sandy soils may be enhanced by adding generous amounts of organic material derived from leaves, bark or pine needles.
When grown on a large scale, bushes are spaced at 1-1.5 meters, with rows 2.4-3 meters apart. Closer spacing will increase early yields, but will prove detrimental in later years. Yields vary from 2kg to 5kg per plant per annum.
Blueberries are also very suited to pot culture, which can solve the problem of unsuitable soils. Bushes grown in pots should be gradually potted up into larger pots over about a ten-year period, with the final pot being 45-60cm in diameter. The average yield from a mature container-grown plant is about 1kg per annum, but much larger crops can occur on strong plants.
One of the best features of blueberries is that very good yields are possible even in exceptionally poor summers. They just love summer rain. Blueberries also have a fairly good shelf life - certainly far longer than most other soft fruit.
When buying stock from a nursery, take care to avoid plants that are severely pot-bound, as these will develop very slowly. Gently teasing out the root-ball prior to planting will help the plant develop new roots. It is better to buy larger plants, as these will come into heavy production much sooner. Although blueberries are partially self-fertile, they crop much better when cross pollination takes place. For this reason it is advisable to plant more than one variety. Good varieties include Bluecrop, Patriot and Darrow. As nursery plants are usually container-grown, they can be planted all year round.
Early varieties will begin cropping late July and continue for the month of August. Mid season varieties will crop from early August until mid September while late varieties will continue producing fruit until late September or even early October.
The wild blueberry is common in many part of Ireland. It can be found growing on dry slopes in upland areas or on the edge of woodland or heath. It goes by a variety of local names including bilberry, blaeberry, or fraughan (from the Irish fraochán). The berries are very small but tasty, and normally ripen in July or August. In the past they would have been enthusiastically collected by country folk.
The fruit was traditionally gathered on the last Sunday in July, known as Fraughan Sunday. Bilberries were also associated with Lughnasadh in August, the first traditional harvest festival of the year.
For free, over-the-phone advice on Blueberry plants, contact Fruit and Nut (www.fruitandnut.ie) on 087 6714075. Fruit and Nut can also supply large container-grown plants. Most garden centres also sell blueberry plants.
Next week Growing Nuts in the west of Ireland