lee reich’s blueberry-growing how-to

DON’T SAY ‘I CAN’T GROW BLUEBERRIES,’ says Lee Reich, whose PhD explored factors affecting the growth of Vaccinium corymbosum, the highbush blueberry. “Follow the prescription and you can.” So what exactly is Lee’s Rx? It’s covered in his latest book, “Grow Fruit Naturally,” along with detailed how-to on every imaginable home fruit crop (in pots or the ground) from kiwi to pawpaw, citrus to pomegranate to plain old strawberries, apples and pears, 31 kinds in all. You can get his blueberry tips below—and I’ll even let you know what’s going on in the photo up top.

Lee Reich and I have been writing about gardening for a similarly long time, connecting off and on throughout our careers. The last time I saw him? Saturday, during my Garden Conservancy Open Day, when he just walked up the driveway, quite to my surprise. His books “A Northeast Gardener’s Year” and “Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention,” both published around 20 years ago, are longtime favorites of mine, and the newest, “Grow Fruit Naturally,” has Lee’s characteristic fusion of solid science; practical, nature-inspired common sense, and a consistently considerate relationship with the environment.

growing blueberries

TO BE PROLIFIC fruit producers, blueberries do have special soil requirements, Lee acknowledges, but he manages to provide that and get more than 180 quarts of fruit each year from 16 highbush types in his home garden (which he calls a “farmden,” as in half farm, half garden) in New Paltz, New York, across the Hudson from where I garden.

Me? I grow lowbush (Vaccinium angustifolium) and highbush types, both Eastern native species, for their spring flowers, red fall foliage (below) and the fact that they are favorites of birds (and unfortunately my local army of chipmunks). I never eat a single berry.

Lee takes things a bit more seriously. His prescription for success includes these steps:

Identify a sunny spot, and then adjust accordingly to also provide very acidic soil that is well-drained but moist, infertile (“Yes, you read that right,” writes Lee) and high in organic matter. If drainage is a problem, consider raised-bed planting.

Start with a soil test (blueberries like the pH in the 4-5 range).

If the pH needs adjustment, use sulfur to acidify the soil. (Pelleted is cheaper and easier to apply than powdered, he says, but either one used according to what your test indicates.) Add the sulfur to the soil of the planting hole, and also spread it around the area that will be the eventual root zone of the plant as it grows.

Lee mixes in a bucketful of peat moss to amend each hole at planting time. Because peat is a non-renewable resource and under intense scrutiny from environmentalists, who advise against its use, I asked what else we might try.

“What’s needed is some long-lasting form of organic matter that isn’t rich in nutrients,” he explained. “Thoroughly rotted sawdust is another possibility. Probably very old compost would be O.K. too because much of it would be stabilized organic matter that would release nutrients only very slowly. Back to the peat moss, though; this is only a one-time application.”

After planting, water well (a practice that will need to be kept up particularly in the plant’s first few years in the ground; Lee’s blueberry garden is on drip irrigation). Mulch to a depth of about 3 inches with wood shavings and chips, pine needles, autumn leaves or sawdust.

Lee replenishes the mulch each fall, after leaf drop—and also feeds the plants at that time with soybean meal at the rate of 1 pound per 100 square feet. He retests the soil pH every few years, and adjusts with more sulfur as indicated.

Starting at four years old, the strict dormant pruning regimen begins on highbush plants, because stems aged six years or older are not good fruit producers. In late winter, the oldest stems (they will be about an inch thick) are cut out to the base (photo above shows how the base of a mature plant looks after pruning, with a good mix of older, younger, and middle-aged stems remaining).

After more than 20 years of following these practices, Lee’s bushes are still prolific—and as I said, he even gets to eat the fruit. That’s because of the last step in his Rx: the blueberry gazebo (top photo, seen in winter).

What a coop is to predator-prone chickens, the gazebo—netted top and sides—is to blueberries. A delicious solution.

Just before he left my garden, Lee had a question for me: “So what will you do with that potted fig on the patio this winter, Margaret?” I’ll put it in the unheated garage with the Japanese maples, I replied about the plant I just bought this spring. Oops! No, says Lee, the fruit doctor. Guess the next chapter in “Grow Fruit Naturally” I’ll be reading is the one about figs–or read this later interview about successful fig growing with Lee.

‘grow fruit naturally’ by lee reich

TO ENTER TO WIN A COPY of Lee Reich’s new “Grow Fruit Naturally,” all you have to do is comment by answering the question [NOTE: The giveaway is now closed; comments are always welcome.]:

What fruit do you grow—or wish to grow—in your home garden? Any tips or tricks to share?

Don’t worry, you can simply say, “Count me in” and your entry will be registered, in case you’re feeling shy. Two winners were drawn at random after entries close at midnight Tuesday, June 12, 2012.

which blueberry to grow?

  • Highbush (V. corymbosum), Zones 4-7; to 7 feet tall, but less with pruning
  • Lowbush (V. angustifolium), Zones 3-7; a suckering groundcover up to 18 inches high; mow or cut to the ground every few years to renew as desired
  • Half-high varieties (hybrids between the previous two species), under 4 feet
  • Rabbiteye (V. asheii, a Southeast native), Zones 7-9; suckering shrub to 15 feet tall, heat-tolerant

extra help from lee’s website

(Disclosure: Links to Amazon are affiliate links, which yield a small commission.)

lee’s favorite fruit sources

I HAD TO ASK LEE REICH, whom Barbara Damrosch calls “the Pied Piper of fruit growing,” where he shops for fruit plants. Here are some of his favorites:

  1. Heather says:

    I’d love to grow highbush blueberries and raspberries. I’ve got three small blueberry plants that each make a child size handful of mini blueberries. The book would be a fantastic resource. Fingers crossed!

  2. Mary says:

    That article was helpful. I did not know about the importance of pruning out three old wood on blueberry bushes to get them to bloom. Also the fact that they prefer nutrient poor soil, but with low nutrient organic matter.

  3. Ann Johnsaton says:

    I have a 60 year old apple tree that we started from seed. The fruit is not the northern spy we started with but a lovely small sweet apple much like a delicious.
    I need a book that tells me how to prune this big old tree.

  4. Erin Etheridge says:

    I’m in North Carolina and grow rabbitey blueberries in a series of three berms on a steep hillside side yard. Lots of moisture but lots of drainage, and the soil is terrible! Lol

    I’ve wondered if a sort of gazebo would be doable for my peach trees. I only have two and they’re dwarf but there’s a family of squirrels that has made sure we’ve never gotten a single peach.

  5. Marilynn Evans says:

    I’d love to try growing blueberries. This information may make me brave enough to give them a try. Thanks for the help.

  6. Sharon H. says:

    I have a nice St. Theresa Grapevine. The grape jelly I make is such a pretty color and it is delicious!
    I’d like to try growing apple trees – need 2 for cross-pollination – and am just trying to decide which 2 varieties. I plan to prune the apple trees to keep them a manageable height, so I can reach the fruit without a ladder. I’ve decided on Pixie Crunch for the 1 tree. Still searching for the 2nd variety. I only have room for 2 trees, and that’s if I keep them pruned!

  7. Laurel Nagle says:

    I am having trouble with the links to Lee’s website. Specifically, the ones for fall blueberry care and spring pruning. It goes to one page then flips to another. I tried searching the website but couldn’t find the articles. Can you please help?

    1. margaret says:

      I am so sorry, Laurel. Funny nobody mentioned it till now! I thought they were working but now I see that he has changed his urls and apparently some articles are not there any more. I have fixes 2 of the 3, and thank you.

  8. Audrey says:

    I need reformation. I have 15 bushes, all at least 20 years old. I have not pruned faithfully and after two extremely wet seasons, mummy berry took hold. I pruned some of the oldest trunks two years ago and saw improvement, and again last winter with promising results. But what to do with the myriad of shoots that come up everywhere? Surely Lee can steer me in a better direction. These highbushes and rabbiteyes are my friends and I am determined to save them.

  9. Kara says:

    Lee is quite the inspiration! Without his books I wouldn’t have Pawpaws, gooseberries or figs in my garden. This year I’m adding aronia and honeyberry bushes (more for wildlife than my own use).

  10. Lori Poehls says:

    I just ordered some blueberry bushes after listening to the podcast. Hopefully, when they begin fruiting, the birds will share some with me!

  11. JoAnn Kunkle says:

    I have 3 Blueberry bushes and they are 5 to 6 years old but only 3.5 feet tall and about a i/2 pint from 2 of them and none from the third?? Upstate, NY. Count me in for the book. I need it!

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