Baskets of Blueberries in Colorado?
Colorado’s highly alkaline soil makes growing bunches of blueberries impossible, but help is on the way.
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Gardeners along Colorado’s Front Range have a lot of challenges when it comes to growing vegetable crops and growing fruit presents problems, too.
Wild weather is one reason tree fruit harvests can be hit or miss. Trees are often hit with a late spring frost that guarantees we’ll miss our fresh peaches, apricots, and other stone fruits.
Small fruit presents challenges, too. While we can grow red and yellow raspberries, other bramble fruits—like black raspberries and blackberries—don’t fare as well over our cold Colorado winters.
And forget about growing blueberries. Colorado’s alkaline soils prevent gardeners from planting blueberries in the ground.
However, thanks to the efforts of Colorado State University researchers, growing Colorado blueberries is becoming a possibility.
At a recent green industry seminar on “Small Fruits for the Front Range,” I heard a report on some interesting research being conducted by Joel Reich, a CSU Extension horticulturist, in trial gardens in northern Colorado. He’s successfully growing blueberries by planting them directly in sphagnum peat moss bales that are buried in the ground. This provides the perfect acidic soil that blueberries need to grow.
For the trials, he punched drainage holes into the bottom of each plastic-wrapped bale and planted one bare-root blueberry plant in each bale. During the growing season, the plant roots are kept consistently moist with regular irrigation. The root zones are also kept moist during warm, dry winter weather.
Another key to unlocking the blueberry-growing secret is keeping the plants covered with burlap through the winter to protect them from drying winds.
Once Colorado gardeners get the hang of growing blueberries, they might want to try growing June-bearing strawberries—something else nearly impossible to grow around here.
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Colorado's highly alkaline soil makes growing bunches of blueberries impossible, but help is on the way.
How to Grow Blueberries in Colorado Gardens
Colorado gardeners who fall in love with the idea of growing their own blueberries may be disappointed with the results. There just isn’t enough room on a planting tag for all the information they need.
Even if they carefully follow the basic planting instructions, blueberries need much more than “Full sun, acidic soil (incorporate peat moss or organic matter into soil), good drainage, fertilize in early spring, moderate watering.”
That’s because blueberry shrubs arrive in Colorado from growers in the northeast or the northwest where conditions are ideal for growing the plants. The climate on each of those coasts is significantly different from Colorado’s land-locked and semi-arid climate.
The two main challenges the blueberry planting tags don’t cover are the soil pH problems and the way winter dries out plants in our region.
Both of these problems can be solved, but it takes extra effort.
Thanks to CSU Extension blueberry experiments, gardeners have a proven blueprint for blueberry success.
The experiments, conducted by Joel Reich while he was a CSU Extension Horticulturist, are detailed in a one-hour webinar recorded in August 2012 called Blueberries for Colorado Gardens.
Anyone with online access can view the free program to learn all about the best blueberry varieties to plant, where to find them, how to plant and fertilize them, best practices for winter protection and how to keep birds and deer from getting to the juicy fruits before gardeners can enjoy them.
The blueberries growing in CSU’s trial gardens in Longmont show that if gardeners plant in sphagnum peat moss and provide special winter protection, they can enjoy fresh blueberries season after season.
Joel grew blueberries in the trial garden for more than 16 seasons in the same bales of peat moss. He devised a fertility maintenance program with a special combination of acidic fertilizers to use on a May, June, July schedule.
Best practices for planting blueberries mean planting directly inside the sphagnum peat moss bales. The bags are opened only part way to help retain moisture. Holes in the bottom of the bag provide drainage. Drip irrigation is important to make sure the soil stays consistently moist.
The bags are placed in trenches so they’re at grade level, but they could also be placed in a raised bed. Gardeners could grow plants in patio or balcony containers if they select the blueberries classified as “half-high.” Plants growing in containers will need even more protection from wind in winter.
The key to providing winter protection is to prevent the damage caused by dry weather, low humidity and winds. It’s especially important to wrap or cover each plant so winter winds can’t suck the moisture out of the dormant buds.
The blueberry shrubs need to be wrapped in layers of burlap with the branches tied up and together. An alternative is to cover each plant with a trash barrel that’s weighted down.
Colorado gardeners who fall in love with the idea of growing their own blueberries may be disappointed with the results. There just isn't enough room on a planting tag for all the information they need. Even if they carefully follow the basic planting instructions, blueberries need much more than “Full sun, acidic soil (incorporate peat…