Q. I’d like to grow blueberries in my yard, but I understand this is difficult in northern Illinois. Is there a way?
A. Blueberries are popular because they are tasty and nutritious, but their need for acidic soil makes them hard to grow in the typically alkaline soil of northern Illinois. Although modifying soil chemistry is impractical for most home gardeners, there is a solution: Containers! Dwarf plants with appropriate cold hardiness can thrive in containers where the requisite soil chemistry is easily established and maintained.
Choose a container approximately 16 to 20 inches in diameter by 12 inches deep, such as a half whiskey barrel, or a 10- or 15 -gallon tub. The container should have drain holes in the bottom covered with landscape fabric to prevent loss of the growing media. Fill the container with soilless acidic growing media (pH 4.5 – 5.0), rich in organic matter, to an inch below the rim.
Select from half-high bush varieties (approximately 30 inches high x 30 inches wide at maturity). ‘Northblue’, Northcountry’, ’Northland’, ‘Northsky’, and a half-high cultivar of ‘Patriot’ do well in northern Illinois. Planting two different varieties assures the best pollination. Plants are available at most garden centers and from several established mail-order retailers.
Blueberries need a location with six hours or more of direct sun daily. They are thirsty plants and should be watered deeply at the base to keep the soil moist, but not soggy, when checked about 2 inches below the surface. Fertilize with slow-release acidic liquid fertilizer about four weeks after planting.
Containers must be protected from freezing solid by overwintering them in a sheltered location such as an unheated garage. An alternative is to permanently bury the containers in a sunny location to within an inch of their rims. The soil below the container should be well-drained so that the plants do not become waterlogged. Burying the containers also reduces the speed at which they dry out. Protect plants from winter rabbit damage by placing chicken wire or hardware cloth around the plants. Cover the plants with bird netting or floating row covers when the berries begin to ripen.
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