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On a grey day, think blue (or pink)

Blueberries grow well here with the right care

Pink blueberries in spring
Yes, blueberries can be pink. These stunners were ripening early last June in
a Carmichael garden. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

In normal times, the winter workshops and Open Garden at the Sacramento County master gardeners' Fair Oaks Horticulture Center would feature a lot of hands-on information about growing and pruning fruit trees and bushes, including in the Berry Garden. Alas, not this year, but a great deal of information is available online. Be sure to check that any information you find is appropriate for our climate. (Hint: Start with the master gardeners' website .)

Bare canes of a blueberry plant
Blueberry plants look very stark in winter -- this
is a Southmoon at the Fair Oaks Horticulture
Center -- but some produce gorgeous red leaves
in late fall. (See next photo)
Cane berries, such as raspberries, can be tricky, but blueberries, which are a perennial shrub, are an easier choice for the first-time berry grower. Plus, blueberries rank high on the superfoods list, and they're not as fragile as cane berries. They do very well in containers or in the ground, but have one special requirement: They prefer more-acidic soil than we have in the region, in the pH range of 4.5-5.5.

So do a test of the soil where you plan to put your blueberry bush. Information on how to adjust the pH, in the best summary of blueberry growing I've found, is in "Growing Blueberries in the Sacramento Region," an Environmental Horticulture Note, EHN 88, written by the Sac master gardeners.

Now is a great time to shop for blueberry bushes, during bare-root season when plants are plentiful and less expensive. But not every blueberry variety does well here -- our hot summers, you know -- so the recommended varieties all fall under the category of Southern highbush, which have lower "chilling hours" requirements (hours of temperatures under 45 degrees during dormancy) in the 150-800 hour range.

(Northern  highbush types have very high chilling requirements, as many as 1,000 hours, which is why they're grown as far north as Canada.)

Red leaves
These pretty leaves are on one of my container

The local nurseries know to stock these varieties, but give them a call if there's a particular one you're seeking. Some examples available at The Plant Foundry , Green Acres Nursery and Big Oak Nursery include:

-- Sunshine Blue, Misty, O'Neal, Southmoon and Sharpblue, which are standard Southern highbush. Just 150 to 200 chilling hours required, which is why these are so popular here.

-- Peach Sorbet (300 hours) and Pink Icing (500 hours), both very pretty compact Southern highbush varieties.

-- Pink Lemonade,  a stunning plant that produces sweet pink berries. It's a hybrid "rabbiteye," another category of blueberry altogether, which usually is grown in humid climates in the South. This one requires only 300 chill hours, but is reported to require another rabbiteye bush nearby.

Southern highbush varieties are self-pollinating but also often do better with another variety planted nearby. Like other fruit producers, they take a little while to get going, often best by their third year.

I have four blueberry plants -- three in pots -- and they are finally into their producing years. They'll be pruned in the next few weeks. Keeping the birds and squirrels away from the crop is my new concern, but that's a post for the spring!


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of Nov. 26:

Concentrate on helping your garden stay comfortable during these frosty nights – and clean up all those leaves!

* Irrigate frost-tender plants such as citrus in the late afternoon. That extra soil moisture increases temperatures around the plant a few degrees, just enough to prevent frost damage. The exception are succulents; too much water before frost can cause them to freeze.

* Cover sensitive plants before the sun goes down. Use cloth sheets or frost cloths, not plastic sheeting, to hold in warmth. Make sure to remove covers in the morning.

* Use fall leaves as mulch around shrubs and vegetables. Mulch acts as a blanket and keeps roots warmer.

* Stop dead-heading; let rose hips form on bushes to prompt dormancy.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location – and definitely indoors overnight. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they’ll bloom again next December.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Plant spring bulbs. Don’t forget the tulips chilling in the refrigerator. Daffodils can be planted without pre-chilling.

* This is also a good time to seed wildflowers and plant such spring bloomers as sweet peas, sweet alyssum and bachelor buttons.

* Plant trees and shrubs. They’ll benefit from fall and winter rains while establishing their roots.

* Set out cool-weather annuals such as pansies and snapdragons.

* Lettuce, cabbage and broccoli also can be planted now.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* Bare-root season begins now. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb.

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