Blueberries for Western and Southern Gardens

New, heat-tolerant blueberries should be enjoyed in more gardens south of the Mason Dixon Line and in the Southwest.

Forget that blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) are just a crop for the far north because that’s changed.  Modern selection and breeding have resulted in a range of hybrids and varieties that extend blueberries into almost every growing zone.  What makes this such a great opportunity is that blueberries are produced on shrubs.  That means they will fit right into any existing ornamental landscape while producing annual crops of berries.

Best Warm-Climate Blueberries

A blueberry is no different from any other acid-loving shrub in your landscape.

Choose from two blueberry types for warmer climates: drought-tolerant rabbiteye hybrids (Vaccinium ashei hybrids, Zones 7-9, 10-12′), and southern highbush hybrids (Vaccinium corymbosum x V. darrowii x V. ashei hybrids, Zones 7-10, 6′).  In the Southwest and California, try rabbiteyes such as ‘Bluebelle’, ‘Southland’, and ‘Tifblue’.  In Northwest California and the American South, where there’s higher rainfall, try the southern highbush varieties ‘Jubilee’, ‘Misty’, ‘O’Neal’, and ‘Southmoon’.

While many cultivated blueberries are self-fertile, pollination and yields are increased by growing different varieties with the same bloom times. Blueberries are pollinated by native bees and honeybees, so it also pays to plant extra spring-blooming bee plants to increase pollinator density at blueberry flowering time.

Siting Blueberries

Like rhododendrons and azaleas, blueberries are ericaceous plants that originate from woodland environments with well-drained, acid (pH 4.0 to 5.0), sandy loam with a shallow layer of organic matter, called the “duff layer”, which lies just below the tree litter.  This is why they grow best with some shade and have wide, shallow root systems that favor low pH soils.  Even if you get a blueberry stipulated for warmer climates, they still require this universal soil condition.

BGPeatMoss2.2cu Front-WEBThis makes blueberries the perfect edible plant for those properties with good soil drainage and high tree canopies. While most other edibles need direct sun, blueberries do exceptionally well under tall shade trees that provide substantial filtered light and morning sun exposure.

Choose an upland site with low soil moisture and good drainage—sandy to average loam soils are best. If the soil quality is not suitable, be it too alkaline or too rich in clay, be prepared to amend your soil.

Cultivating Blueberries

Peat moss is the best source of organic matter for acid-loving plants like blueberries. Dig a hole three times as wide as it is deep and mix the native soil with 50% Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss. Then add a high-acid fertilizer contain ammonium sulfate or sulfur-coated urea (apply using package recommendations) and backfill. Finish by adding a  3″ mulching layer of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend to help keep root zones cool and moist. Providing an organic-rich, fertile layer of acid soil around the new plant stimulates rapid lateral root growth and helps protect against periodic heat and drought.

Blueberries also grow well in large patio containers filled with OMRI Listed® Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Soil, which is approved for organic gardening and ideal for keeping roots from drying out in the summer months without using excess water.

In warmer winter climates, southern blueberries ripen earlier than late-blooming northern varieties.

Because blueberries fruit on newer stems, refrain from pruning them in the first couple of years to help them become better established.  [Click here to learn how to prune established blueberry bushes.] In fact, it is best to strip off the first-year flowers and blueberries to help plants invest all their early growth towards sturdy roots and stems.

Blueberries are long-lived shrubs that will bring yields to your landscape for years to come.  They will also allow you and your family to enjoy the bounty of home-grown organic fruit in just about any landscape or garden.

Cool-Season Vegetables for Western Gardens

Bottles create a unique raised container for ruffled kale, the new "super food".
Immersed bottles create a unique raised container for fall kale, the new “super food”, and chard.

While frost strikes early in the mountain states, the rest of the West is in a state of flux.  Heat-loving summer vegetables may be past their peak with production in decline, but rather than watch this process of attrition, consider starting anew with the cool-season leaf and root crops we struggle to grow over summer.

The Best Western Cool-Season Crops

Our dry heat makes cole crops, such as kale, cabbage and broccoli, wither, and those that can withstand the onslaught become a Mecca for wooly aphids that lodge in the nooks and crannies of leaves and flowers.  Yet when they are sown in August, these seedlings thrive in the warm ground and come to maturity in mid- to late-fall when cooler temperatures limit aphids and other pests.  Even better, cole crops actually taste better after a frost!

Large pots on a sunny porch or patio can be packed with greens for easy picking.
Large pots on a sunny porch or patio can be packed with greens for easy picking.

The same is true for Swiss chard, lettuce, arugula, and other tender greens that bolt with the early summer heat and develop bitter flavors.  Sow these at summer’s end to yield salads that are lush and tasty until frost cuts them down.

Root crops are also ideal for cool-season growing. Of these crops, beets are a stellar performer because the leaves are edible as pot or salad greens before the root matures for harvest.  Other root crops include carrots, turnips, and radishes.  Enormous Asian daikon radishes are good root vegetables for opening up clay soils with their large powerful taproots. Some varieties are spicy while others can be surprisingly crisp and mild.

Preparing the Cool-Season Garden

Now is time to prepare for your own cool-season vegetable garden. The first step is to create space for these cool-season crops.  Remove any warm-season vegetables that are no longer productive, especially large, ground-covering vines that take up a lot of space.  If green beans passed their prime, let them go too.  Where these vegetables grew, the soil will require fresh fortification with quality amendments and organic fertilizer to replace what consumed by microbes and summer crops.

Root crops grow extra large in light soil, preferably sandy loam.  Unfortunately many gardeners have earth that is predominately clay, so unless you amend this ground with organic matter, root crops won’t reach their full potential.  The best tool for this is a spading fork ideal for small spaces and spot planting by cultivating deeply enough for root crops. Double digging is also a good practice. (Read double digging article here.)

A plant tower allows you to grow a wide range of greens in little space.

After removing summer plants, dig and turn the ground while also removing any plant remnants that are not decomposed. These can be deposited in your compost bin.  Then apply Black Gold Garden Compost Blend  in a layer at least 2 to 3 inches overall. It’s difficult to overdo it with compost, so be generous because the more you use now, the bigger your root crops will be at harvest time.  Turn the ground again to mix it up, then use an iron rake to break down the smallest clods and smooth the surface to make a suitable seedbed.

Growing Cool-Season Crops in Containers

Leaf crops are ideal for containers, too.  A few flower pots or more extensive troughs on the deck or patio are a great place to get started.  Don’t hesitate to begin with fresh Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil Plus Fertilizer that’s fully fortified with microbes, nutrients and plenty of organic matter.  Containers are perfect for lettuce, exotic greens and kale, the new super food.  In deeper containers, sow a variety of different radishes every week over the next month. That way you’ll  have some at peak of perfection all fall for impromptu salads and dips.

Autumn is the second growing season that is too often ignored in the back-to-school rush, but now is the time to think ahead and replant with leaf and root for healthy fresh eating out West.