Blueberries are beautiful multi-taskers in the world of edible landscaping.
The plants offer something lovely throughout the year — showy red foliage in the fall, delicate white and pink blooms in the spring, and handfuls of sweet plump berries in the late spring and summer.
They are also great picks for small-space gardening. They can flourish anywhere you've got room for a pot that gets direct morning sunlight — such as a patio.
The beginning of spring is the best time to plant blueberries in Southern California, so they can settle in before the weather gets hot, says Conor Fitzpatrick, chief of operations for Fig Earth Supply nursery in Los Angeles.
The blueberry's natural habitat is a bog, Fitzpatrick said, so it flourishes in wet, acidic soil favored by their cousins, rhododendrons and azaleas. That's why he recommends planting in large pots — he favors half wine barrels on wheels — instead of the ground because it's easier to keep them fed and properly watered. If you plant in the ground, make sure the soil has an acidity (pH) of 4.5 to 5.5. If not, add lots of peat moss to the soil to increase acidity.
His 4 tips for great blueberries:
1. Look for Southern Highbush varieties, which have been bred to withstand hot climes. Blueberries need a certain number of "chill hours" every year — hours when the temperatures drop to between 32 to 45 degrees — in order to yield fruit. So you want a plant that only needs "low" chill hours, which is ideal for a Southern California garden.
2. Blueberries like partners, so plant them in pairs. Choose different varieties for better pollination and to stagger your harvest. Plant in a location that gets morning sun but afternoon shade because blueberries can't handle the intense heat that arrives after 1 p.m.
3. Use a potting soil designed for azaleas and other acid-loving plants and feed them a good fertilizer monthly. Fitzpatrick likes E.B. Stone Organics fertilizer, formulated for azaleas.
4. Water deeply once a week at the base of the plant, not overhead, because that can encourage mildew on the leaves. "The soil should feel like a damp sponge," Fitzpatrick says. Blueberries have fine roots near the surface that shouldn't be disturbed, so a thick (3- to 4-inch) mulch will help protect those roots while deterring weeds and conserving moisture.
Depending on the variety, you should have berries to pick by late spring all the way into late summer.
And finally, there's this tip: Sunset's Western Garden Book of Edibles recommends that you sample a few berries for sweetness before you harvest because some varieties "color up before they sweeten up."