Photo by Rick Gush
Pine trees, wild deer and blueberries seem to go together. My grandmother lived up in the mountains in Northern California, and I remember, that in addition to all the wild gooseberries growing in the woods around her home, many of the gardeners in her community had also planted blueberry bushes among the pine trees. This made for a lot of berries for me to snack on while I wandered around during the summers.
Once I started working in nurseries, I discovered that blueberries are probably the most frequently recommended species for gardeners who want to know what might manage to grow well under large pine trees. These days, I’m a bit more suspicious of planting blueberries in areas with high deer populations; deer love to eat the fruit and foliage of the plant.
The largest and oldest blueberry shrubs I’ve seen were about 15 feet tall, but in a big mushroom shape because deer had eaten all the foliage within 6 or 7 feet of the ground, much in the same way that horses will prune apple trees in their pastures.
The most notable feature of blueberry cultivation is their love of a moist and acidic environment. The ground under mature pines is quite acidic, which is why blueberries are happy there.
If you don’t plant under a pine tree, the advised soil preparation is to add a large amount of thick, organic mulches on top of the planted bushes. The mulches maintain moisture and add to the acidity of the growing environment. Like azaleas, which also have relatively shallow root systems, blueberries appreciate insulation from sun exposure.
Although blueberries will usually self-pollinate, most savvy growers plant a mixture of varieties; this seems to facilitate a more thorough pollination, which of course means more and bigger fruits. Usually, the individual plants are kept at about 6 feet tall. This height makes harvesting easier. Blueberries produce a lot of new growth every year, and medium age branches produce the most fruit, so commercial growers need to be constantly thinning the plants to maintain the most fruitful profile.
Blueberries are usually called Vaccinium Section Cyanococcus. Their famous cousins in the Vaccinium genus include the blue berries known as myrtili, here in Italy, as well as the famous cranberries grown in the Northeast of the United States.
The most problematic pests in blueberry cultivation are the birds that eat the ripe fruits. In most growing areas, nets and other coverings prevent birds from getting to the ripe fruits.
We don’t get many blueberries here in Italy, but we do get their cousins, the myrtles. They both look identical from the outside, but blueberries have a light-green flesh while myrtle berry flesh is red or purple. My Italian wife is particularly fond of the myrtle berries, so I’ll enjoy introducing her to “real” blueberries when we visit the States this fall.