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February 20, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, February 20, 2004

Backyard blueberries Backyard blueberries (February 20, 2004)

You don't have to live in Oregon to grow blueberries successfully

by Anne Duwe

ancy Garrison, coordinator of the Master Gardener Program in Santa Clara County, didn't even like blueberries until she started growing them here. Now she can't say enough encouraging things about the glories of backyard blueberries.

"Of more than 20 varieties that could be grown here, five or six varieties do just wonderfully," said Garrison, who will teach a class on growing blueberries on Feb. 28 at Common Ground in Palo Alto.

Garrison has 10 plants in her own quarter-acre urban farm in San Jose. Each plant bears two to three pints of fruit during May, June and July.

"I had always associated blueberries with Washington, Oregon or the East Coast until I gave them a try. That was 17 years ago, and now blueberries are growing successfully all over Santa Clara County, including a nice planting in the community garden in Palo Alto's Eleanor Pardee Park," she said.

Blueberries (vaccinium corymbosum) prefer acidic, well-drained soil. Ideally one would amend the soil with peat moss, pine needles or wood chips before planting. The acids in these materials need not necessarily be renewed but are released slowly over time.

Best results are obtained if the plants are heavily mulched to keep the root area cool and moist, especially in summer. In her own yard Garrison amended the soil when the plants were put in, but she has not even fertilized them during the last seven years. They continue to thrive with only regular mulching.

Garrison recommends soil with a pH between 5 and 6. She notes that most soils in Santa Clara County register between 7 and 7.6 on the scale for rating relative acidity or alkalinity.

"They are so beautiful ," she said, drawing out the word to emphasize that blueberry plants are lovely as ornamentals, never mind the fruit. There are deciduous as well as evergreen varieties. All the deciduous varieties, such as "Bluecrop," produce brilliant shades of fall color.

"The leaves turn the colors one sees here on pistachio trees," Garrison said. Some blueberry varieties produce distinctive red stems. Flowers are bell-shaped and come in pink or white. "Reveille" produces blooms in striking shades of hot pink.

Blueberries can be grown in containers as long as the roots don't get too hot, she added. Keeping the root zone moist with drip irrigation or frequent watering during the growing season is essential. Fertilizing with plant foods designed for acid-loving plants (like rhododendrons and azaleas) also helps.

According to Garrison, blueberries prefer full sun though they tolerate shady areas. Growing them in the shade prolongs their fruiting season though they don't produce as abundantly. Blueberries can be gown in plots or borders, and since they require significant winter pruning, they grow easily in close quarters. Planted 2 1/2 feet apart, they grow into solid hedgerows; spaced 6 feet apart they can grow as individual specimens. Many varieties reach a height of 5 or 6 feet when mature though there are dwarf varieties as well.

With acid soil, sunshine and abundant water the home gardener can expect a creditable crop with just three plants. To ensure an abundance of large fruit, Garrison said it is necessary to remove all blooms the first year. Heavy pruning to remove one third to one half the wood is also essential for good fruit production.

Garrison grew up in Palo Alto but wasn't interested in gardening until she planted her first garden, more by chance than design, while living on an Oregon cattle ranch. She had only Robert Rodale's "Organic Method to Farming and Gardening" for guidance.

"When I saw that first itsy-bitsy striped watermelon grow from the size of a golf ball into a 15-pound fruit, I was absolutely hooked," Garrison said. Her passion for gardening and cooking with the bounty she produces has intensified ever since.

The success of her Oregon adventure led her to study agriculture at California Polytechnic, San Luis Obispo, where she earned a degree in crop science. Her first professional job was as the urban garden specialist for the city of Los Angeles. In that capacity she helped establish demonstration gardens in Watts, Compton and other low-income areas of the city.

In 1980 Garrison returned to Santa Clara County to work as the farm advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension, a job she has held since. She initiated a Master Gardener program for the county. This national program requires participants to complete 60 hours of training and then volunteer in their communities, sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm.

Garrison has trained more than 800 Master Gardener volunteers. Through that program she has evaluated melons, sapotes, sunflowers, tomatoes, ornamental salad greens, Latin and Asian vegetables and innumerable rare fruits.

In 1997 she turned to local Master Gardeners to help evaluate blueberry varieties. They helped test 15 varieties at the Bay Area Research and Extension Center of the University of California in Santa Clara, looking for which varieties thrive under local conditions. In all 255 blueberry plants were tested.

With so many varieties to choose from, one can decide exactly which qualities matter most. Some varieties produce large fruit (best for eating fresh), some produce smaller, more intense fruit (best for muffins or pancakes) while other varieties might be chosen for their ripening season, fall foliage or plant form.

"My favorite varieties are 'Reveille,' 'Misty' and 'Bluecrop'," Garrison said. These are productive plants with a wild, intense blueberry flavor and good sugar/acid balance."

And her favorite way to eat blueberries? "In pancakes, where they just burst in your mouth!"

Box information What: Growing Blueberries When: Saturday, Feb. 28, 10:30 a.m.-noon Where: Common Ground, 559 College Ave., Palo Alto Cost: $17 Info: Call 493-6072. Pre-registration recommended.
What: Paw Paws, Pluots and Other Rare Fruit When: Saturday, May 15, 10:30 a.m.-noon Where: Common Ground, 559 College Ave., Palo Alto Cost: $17 Info: Call 493-6072. Pre-registration recommended.

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