Growing Great Blueberries

Enjoy home grown blueberries
Blueberries ripening on the bush

Blueberries are very satisfying and easy to grow.

They can cost a pretty hefty amount at the store and are really easy to grow here in the mid-Atlantic area of the US.

Blueberries are native here, so even if you choose to grow cultivar varieties which produce larger fruit like I do, you can be assured they like this climate.

Blueberries are beautiful in the landscape, having white or pink flowers in spring and bright red, yellow or bronze foliage in autumn.

There are two types of blueberries: high bush & low bush.   Low bush are generally grown in northern climates like Maine and Canada. High bush are generally grown further south and the ones mostly grown in Virginia gardens.

A question I am often asked is: Should I buy them in a container or bare root?

Either is fine.

It is best to only have bare root plants shipped vs. container grown because shipping container grown plants is pricey.

Blueberry in autumn.
Blueberry in autumn.

Bare root plants are grown in the nursery for a few years (a good company will tell you how old the plants will be that you are ordering) dug up in the dormant months, kept cool and shipped in spring.

Container grown plants would be obtained locally.

Currently, we do not have a good source of container grown blueberries locally. The nursery we liked  is going out of business because the owners are retiring. Many local nurseries sell blueberry bushes for short,  limited time in early spring. Be sure and ask them if their plants are sprayed with

grow fruit at home
Heavy fruit load not yet ripe

loads of chemicals that could kill your pollinators, including the neonicotinoids that have been so much in the news lately.

To get a great selection, we recommend ordering bare root from RainTree Nursery. They sell 2-to-3 year old blueberry plants that are good sized, at least 18” tall and bushy.

When buying blueberry plants, be sure to buy at least two varieties for pollination. Also check the ripening dates, choosing two bushes each of three varieties can extend your harvest and give you a very healthy crop.

Blueberry bush in bloom
Blueberry bush in bloom

Popular varieties include the old time ‘Jersey’, which has bright yellow leaves in autumn and ‘Bluecrop’ which has red fall color.  Another yellow fall colored variety is ‘Bluegold’, which is popular with smaller space gardeners because the bushes are more compact at 4’ high. Most highbush blueberries are 6’ high. ‘Bluegold’ and ‘Earliblue’ can start your blueberry season off, then follow on with ‘Blueray’ for mid season and ‘Elliot’ or ‘Libery’ for late season fruit.   We also really like ‘Patriot’ and ‘Northland’ as they has done very well for us.

growing blueberries
Blueberries that made it to the bowl

Container gardeners might like to try the cute ‘Top Hat’ that only grows to 18”. You can choose a variety that grows to 4’ for container culture and use a larger container.

In ground, space your blueberries as far apart as their listed mature height.  So, if a variety is listed as 6′ high, plant them 6′ apart, or a little farther, if you have room, for good aeration and light.

Three important notes about growing blueberries:

  1. Choose a sunny location. Although blueberries grow in partial shade, they need full sun to produce lots of berries.
  2. Plant them separate from your annual vegetable garden because they have different soil requirements. Blueberries want acidic soil, unlike your annual veggies.  A good mulch for blueberries is pine needles.
  3. Plant your blueberries where they will naturally get plenty of water because they are shallow rooted plants. You can dig swales to capture water for your blueberries in heavy rains.

One last note, invest in a few post and bird netting so you get your crop instead of the birds.

Hope this inspires you to try growing some blueberries at home, whether you want to eat them fresh or make summer blueberry ice cream, they are an easy and satisfying perennial crop to grow.

Mix it up! Companion Plant your Annual Vegetable Garden

Make the most of your garden space by mixing flowers and herbs with your annual vegetables.

Backyard Foodscape
Backyard Foodscape incorporates flowers and herbs along with vegetables.

Pairing the right plants together, those that gardeners have observed grow well together, allows plants to do some of your garden work for you. This accomplishes several functions as we can see…

One classic example showing some ways plants work together is the native American corn/beans/squash combination:

Poll beans climb up the corn stalk, so the corn is the support, or trellis, for the bean.  So the corn just saved you from building a pole bean trellis. The bean is a member of the legume family of plants. This plant family are what are called ‘nitrogen fixers’, which means they capture nitrogen and store it in nodules on their roots, making it available for other plants to take it in. Corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder, so in exchange for the support the corn gives the beans, the beans feed the corn. The beans just saved you from having to add something to feed your corn. The squash plants wind all around the base of the corn and beans, providing them shade cover to keep moisture in the soil longer for all of them. The squash just saved you from watering as much or putting down mulch to hold moisture in the soil.  A couple nice additions to this already cool combo are:

  • Sunflowers in the mix to also support beans and provide seeds for humans and birds.
  • Nasturtiums attract a ‘beneficial bug’ called hoverflies.  Beneficial bugs are so named because they prey on other bugs that like to eat your food, although, in a diverse ecosystem, all bugs are beneficial to maintain balance. Hoverflies like to eat bugs like aphids and thrips.  Nasturtiums repel loads of critters who want to eat your crops including: cabbage loppers, worms and weevils; squash, cucumber and bean beetles and more.  In addition, the leaves and flowers are edible!

Companion planting is a good way to design your garden beds. See what plants go together and plant in those combinations. Start with simple combinations and then get more complex over time. Good places to start are:

  • tomatoes/lettuce/onions/marigolds/parsley
  • peppers/basil/marigolds/chamomile
  • peas/carrots/lettuce
  • bush beans/potatoes/flax
  • cucumbers/radishes/nasturtiums/dill
Squash & Nasturtiums. Nasturtiums are good companions for not only cucumbers, but also squash and melons.

Another reason to use companion planting is it makes a beautiful garden, as these photos show, and remember, beauty is food too!

Container gardeners, you can do this too!  The same combinations apply, either in the same container, or containers that are next to each other.

I’ll write more companion planting, so check back.

Container Garden your Way to Yummy Food

grow great tomatoes at home
Container Grown Gold Roma Tomatoes

Happy Spring!

Tis the season we starting dreaming of gardening – what don’t have much time or space to garden?

No problem – Container garden.

Container gardening is a great place to start gardening and easy to add if you are an experienced gardener.

For the new gardener, it allows you to learn on a small scale. It is often where I recommend people start gardening, especially those who feel overwhelmed by gardening for the first time.

Experienced gardeners (and all of us really) can enjoy the convenience a container garden can provide, consider…

 

… 5 Reasons why container gardening is a great idea:

  1. It doesn’t take much space
  2. You can move the containers to where the sun and rain are
  3. You don’t have a big area to maintain
  4. You can grow loads of food
  5. You can grow food year round

Lets take a peek at each of these 5 reasons.

Grow lots of food in a containerContainer gardens can be a various sizes and shapes and tucked into or onto most any place, making they great for small space gardening. Even if you have a large yard, growing food on your deck is convenient.

Live in a townhouse where the sun is limited. You can move your container garden around from place to place to follow the sun, getting more or less light depending on what you are growing. You can move them under the eves in a big rain storm, or under the sky if they need watering.

Many people seem to not have much time these days, so having a smaller area to maintain fits with many people’s lifestyles and still allows them to eat some food from their own place.

You can get a huge yield from a well planted container garden. Amazing really how much bounty you can haul in. You can grow pretty much anything you would grow in the ground in a container.

All those crops that grow in fall and winter can grow in containers too, so you can four season garden !

 

Want more and live local … Come to our Container Garden Workshop, April 11, 2015

Why Grow Your Health?

Grow Your Health logo 2014For three years now I have been honored to be a part of the team who put on the Grow Your Health, Gardening, Local Food and Wellness Festival.

There are several reasons for our participation in this local annual event:

First off, we are passionate about spreading the word of growing your own food. Gardening is a great way to get outside, off our computers for a few, and get back to our roots –  sometimes literally –  in the case of carrots and radishes. Grow Your Health is a great venue to talk gardens and empower people to garden.spring greens in deck house close up

The festival is also about local food. This local festival gets community members together with local farms and healthy food providers in a fun environment.   Connecting folks with our local farmers and practitioners enriches our local economy. It also allows each to expand their community support system. Families supporting family farms was part of how this country was built and these relationship nurture the heart of everyone involved.

The third focus of the festival is wellness, not only of our bodies through various support systems, but also the wellness of the planet that supports us all. The movie we are showing this year, GMO OMG talks primarily about the potential effects of genetically modified organisms in our food, but the business of growing these has major impacts on the wellness of planet earth.

Helping the neGrow-Your-Health-2014-kids-gardening-class-3xt generations learn about healthy practices for themselves and their planet, how to connect with the planet through gardening and knowing where their food comes from is part of the family value this festival can provide. Each year we strive to make the event better for families to attend, more fun for children and provide everyone who attends an enriching community event.

Come out and join us, Saturday, March 28, 10:00 am – 5:30 pm.

Stop by the Prior Unity Garden Booth and sign up for the raffle to win some prizes.

As part of the class lineup, Russell will be part of a Gardening Q&A at 11:00 am and Debby will be teaching Small Space Gardening at 1:30 pm.

We’ll also have spring plants and other cool stuff.

MORE EVENT  INFO

GET TICKETS – Adults $10 in advance, $15 at the door – Children under 16 FREE

deb and russ at the booth – Debby Ward,Founder & Owner of Prior Unity Garden & Management Team Member, Grow Your Health – Gardening, Local Food & Wellness Festival

 

Grow Your Health Festival 2015

gyh banner1

We'll have baby lettuce, kale, chard and arugula plants for your spring garden.
We’ll have baby lettuce, kale, chard and arugula plants for your spring garden.

Come celebrate spring at the Grow Your Health – Gardening, Local Food and Wellness Festival on March 28, from 10:00 am – 5:30 pm. W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax VA.

Come take classes on gardening, food and wellness. I’ll be teaching Small Space Gardening and Russell will be teaching about building healthy living soil.

Watch the movie, GMO OMG, enjoy local artisan food and stop by our booth and get your baby spring greens plants !

More info

Get a ticket NOW

Come by the Prior Unity Garden Booth at the Grow Your Health Festival and say hi !
Come by the Prior Unity Garden Booth at the Grow Your Health Festival and say hi !

Harden-off Your Babies Right

Hardening off trays of seedlings along a warm brick sidewalk
Hardening off trays of seedlings along a warm brick sidewalk

Hardening off your seedlings is an important step to insuring they bound into growth and production when put unto the ground.

Hardening off refers to how we acclimate seedlings; who have been started indoors, to their final outdoor environment, by slowing getting them used to increased amounts of sun, wind and rain. If we do not harden off our seedlings, they will experience what is called “transplant shock” and likely die, or at least not grow well and thrive. Hardening off does require a bit of flexibility and may be the most attention intensive part of starting your plants from seed indoors. The process only takes a couple of week though, and the opportunity for observation is great, so do not be discouraged. You are strengthening the babies you started.

 

Steps to Harden Off seedlings:

  1. Check the seeds catalogs and packets to find out the cold or heat tolerance of your seedling type and take this into consideration when hardening off.
  2. Ideally, only expose your plants to filtered sunlight for a hour or two the first couple of days. You can also begin on a cloudy day and leave them out for 2 or 3 hours
  3. Gradually expose them to more sun at a rate of 1 to 2 hours per day of time outside.
  4. Be sure to bring your seedlings in at night for at least a week as they are not likely used to cold nights. Bring them in if frost threatens.
  5. Do not leave them out if the weather calls for high wind or heavy rain, they are not strong enough yet to handle these conditions, yet.
  6. By a couple of weeks time, you want your seedlings out all the time and they can then be planted into your containers garden.       You can harden them off and keep them in their smaller containers longer depending upon your schedule.
More seedlings hardening off in the sun
More seedlings hardening off in the sun

5 Simple Steps to Seed Starting Success

Fellow gardeners take heart that spring will come and the snow will melt! In the meantime, starting seeds indoors helps keep the winter blues away.

seedlings like light
Seedlings under lights

 

Here are 5 simple steps to successful start your plants indoors:

  1. Choose high quality seed from a reputable seed company. For a list of the companies I recommend, click here. See prior posts under Seed Companies for more on choosing a seed company.
  2. Pick crops to start indoors that transplant well like tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons and cucumbers. Read your seed catalogs or the back of seed packets to see if that type of plant is good started indoors.
  3. Use quality seed starting mix. Either choose an organic mix from a reputable company or make your own with peat, vermiculite and perlite.
  4. Give your seedlings lots of light and warmth. You can set up a simple home seedling rack with 3’ shoplights over a shelf that can hold 5 seedling trays. Building it yourself will save you money.
  5. Start your seedlings at the right time. Seed catalogs and packets will tell you when to start your seedlings. For example, cucumbers, melons and squash are generally started 3 to 4 weeks before they will be planted out. Remember to add in time for hardening off. For more on this, see my upcoming post.
grow your own plants
Homemade Seed Starting Rack

 

Do You Know Quality Seed and Where to Get It?

Seed Catalogs
Catalogs from some of our recommended companies.

The easy answer is to purchase your seed from one of the companies on our Recommended Seed Company List. This works great if you have come to trust our process of evaluating companies.

I am not an “activist”, it is has never been my interest or my bent, yet I do “vote with my dollar” and so choose to support companies who have the values I consider important. To that end, each year I research companies, read a pile of seed catalogs and compare varieties and plant lists of those folks I know and trust and those I don’t.

It has become clear that in addition to the current 13 criteria we use to evaluate a company, two more need to be added. Here are our additional criteria and why we added them. See the first 13 criteria.

  1. Does the company sell varieties that are owned by companies who engage in genetic modification of seeds?

One company in particular, who was on our list for years, has staunchly continued to offer a small percentage of varieties owned by Monsanto. Granted, most of these varieties were not bred by Monsanto, but were bred and owned by companies who Monsanto bought a few years ago. For those like us, who do not want to support companies who engage in genetic modification of seed, the act of buying from a company who buys from a company who engages in genetic modification of seed, is indirectly supporting companies who engage genetic seed modification. Prior Unity Garden does not support this activity. Therefore any company who buys seed from companies who create GMO seed will not make our list, even if they have signed the Safe Seed Pledge.

You may be thinking, but if they signed the Safe Seed Pledge, then they are not selling GMOs, right ? Generally speaking, you are correct, they are not selling genetically modified seed, but they can still sign the Pledge and sell seed that is not genetically modified from companies who make GMO seed. Doing this practice now excludes a company from being on our recommended seed company list.

  1. Does the company actually grow the varieties they sell?

Seed Packets from some of our recommended companiesThere are ‘seed houses’ who are resellers of seed only, buying seed wholesale and reselling it. They may grow some of it, but do not really have field trials, so are not really in touch with the varieties they are offering.

We have found the seed quality and reliability from these companies to swing wildly and these companies do not have people you can talk with about growing specific varieties they offer. While this may be fine for some folks, we find it frustrating when evaluating specific varieties for growing traits our clients have requested. In effect, you become the testers. Because we want to recommend the highest quality seed companies how offer the highest quality seed, we will not be putting companies on our list who do grow all or most of the varieties whey offer. These companies simply cannot support what they sell to the high degree other companies can.

In some cases, a company will offer seed from a variety of local farms and this is a practice we love seeing as it supports small local farms and seed. In this case, the seed house may not trial every variety, but their partner farms are growing seed and this practice has proven to be an excellent marker of quality seed, in part because the farm’s name is on the seed. These companies do make our list. Granted, most of them also test all or most of the varieties they offer.

  1. Who owned the company?

As large Agribusinesses buy out smaller companies, this question is becoming more important. It used to be seed companies be handed down through generations of a family. Now, it is good to know and sometimes difficult to find out. Often the Agribusiness does not want their ownership known.

Call the company, see what is written in the catalog and website. The point here is avoiding supporting agribusinesses who engage in generic modification of seed.

Companies who are owned by large agriculture businesses will usually sell varieties they own, so knowing what those varieties are, helps you discern if you want to support that business or not.

You can make the process easier and let us do the research for you. See our list of Recommended Seed Companies and/or the rest of our Seed Company Criteria.

 

5 Steps to Prep Old or Future Garden Beds Now

make living soil
You can also do this around perennial plantings like blueberries as we did in this pic

Happy Autumn !

As the days grow shorter and cool down, fall is a great time to get outside.  Save yourself some work next spring by preparing your current or future garden now with these easy steps:

  1. Chop old dying plants off at ground level, or mow very low, and chop up the above ground parts
  2. Put either cardboard or 4 sheets of newspaper down over your existing beds, or over an area you would like to make a garden next year.
  3. If it is a windy day, hose down the cardboard/paper so it does not blow away while you are working.
  4. Put the chopped up old plants on top of the cardboard/newspaper (or you can compost it)
  5. Top off with leaves racked from your yard and then a bit of hardwood mulch to hold it all in place and look tidy

You’ve just accomplished:

  •  Beginning to build healthy living soil that will grow great plants for you
  • If the bed is current – provided weed suppression for next spring planting
  • If the bed will be new next year – you have started eradicating grass or whatever is currently in the space so making the bed will be much easier next spring

Happy Gardening !

Sourcing Materials for your Garden Projects – Foundations of Organic Gardening Info Series

Backyard Foodscape
Backyard Foodscape

Think free, or darn close to it. There are various ways and places to find low coast items for your gardening projects.

‘Use and value renewable resources” is one of the 12 permaculture design principles we explore in the Foundations of Organic Gardening course.

Sometimes this looks like building a community of people who share resources.

Sometimes this is discovering what resources we have on our property we can cultivate.

Sometimes buying something makes sense based on its utility.

Another permaculture design principle is “Produce no waste”. These two principles can go hand in hand.  For example, maybe you have a tree that drops branches each year. Perhaps it makes sense to invest in a chipper so you can chip those branches into mulch instead of bring in mulch. You may be saying, ‘that is not free’, but consider how much you spend now dealing with the branches and how much you currently spend on mulch.  The investment may be worth it.

Most of the things we use to build healthy living soil are free.

We explore these types of ideas all through the Foundations course, so join the fun and sign up now.