Living on the Gulf Coast, in the subtropical zone 9, I am constantly told that I can’t grow various things. The horticulture major side of me just nods and smiles, the plant nerd side of me says “but I want to try anyway”, and the redhead side of me says “just watch me!” The fact is, gardeners know about the heat zone map, minimum and maximum temperatures and the necessary number of chill hours for various crops. What many gardeners, particularly beginners, don’t know is that these factors are more like guidelines than hard and fast rules.
My husband loves blueberries. I personally have a fondness for warm blueberry muffins fresh from the oven. We are all quite fond of homemade blueberry jelly. Store bought blueberries are nice, but nothing compares to fat ripe blueberries picked at their peak. Living in an area that is more predisposed to growing citrus and bananas, blueberries seem like an impossible dream. I, however, believe that nothing is impossible.
When I first started looking into planting blueberries, I was told repeatedly that it wasn’t possible. Our summers are too brutal. Our soil is too alkaline. Our winters are too mild. I’ve never dealt well with being told that I can’t do something. My father always said it was my red hair. Whatever the case, I saw blueberry bushes for sale and I was determined to try.
Winter before last, I did my research. I discovered there are different types of blueberries. Rabbiteyes (Vaccinium ashei) grow in the south. Awesome. I continued my research. They require a soil pH of 4.0-5.5. Okay. I can mix my own soil. They require at least half a day of full sun. Cool. I can do that. Irrigation water should have little to no calcium bicarbonate, so tap water isn’t healthy for them. No problem. We harvest rainwater. I can use that to water them. Blueberries have shallow fibrous roots. Again, no problem. I mulch everything anyway because of our summer droughts. So my project began.
Building the blueberry bed
I decided it was best to get our bushes planted in late winter. As February came to a close, and March settled in, we got to work. To begin, we chose a location. The spot we chose was a protected area against the house where the plants will get full sun all morning up until late afternoon, when temperatures soar. The house also provides protection against our tropical storms and high winds. My husband built me a raised bed approximately 2 x 4 x 2.5 feet deep. We mixed our own soil to fill it, a combination of peat moss, coconut coir and a pine bark-based potting mix. Once the box was filled, we chose our blueberry plants. At this point, I researched available varieties to see which ones could likely survive our area. We decided on ‘Climax’ and ‘Premier’. My husband also decided we needed to get ‘Pink Lemonade’ because he liked the name (he’s scientific that way). We planted our little bare root plants in their new home and mulched them thickly with a layer of pine needles about 3 inches thick. We fertilize with aluminum sulfate in low doses twice per year. Our little plants leafed out and grew, and even produced a handful of flowers which weren’t allowed to produce fruit (Our hens took care of that for us. They are no longer allowed near the blueberry box unsupervised.) Still, the doubters continued to doubt.
Well, here it is a year and a half later, and our blueberries are happy as can be. We even got a small harvest of big fat berries this spring (which didn’t last long enough to even make it inside the house). They have grown, branched out, and are even providing a small splash of fall color with the leaves turning red as August prepares to give way to September. Next year, I hope for an even bigger harvest (I still can’t guarantee they’ll make it inside).
Our first berry
With a little research, knowledge, and careful construction of a microclimate conducive to blueberry growth, we have done the supposed “impossible”: grow blueberries in the subtropics. While I realize that I haven’t truly performed an impossible task, I do feel that my success is a good example of why it is important to think outside the box and not necessarily look at generally accepted truths as hard and fast rules that cannot be bent a little. Grow what you love. If you live an area unconducive to growing what you love, then do some research. Look at things a little differently. Take each factor as a single obstacle to be addressed. If you live in the north but love mangoes, fine. Grow your tree in a container that can be moved inside over the winter. If you live in the south and love blueberries … well, you know. The point to gardening is to grow healthy, tasty food for your family. If you’re going to put in the work to garden in the first place, you might as well grow your favorites. As for me, I think I shall grow apples. I can’t grow apples here? Hmm, we shall see about that …