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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
plants.

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 Jan. 29

Bundle up and get work done!

* Prune, prune, prune. Now is the time to cut back most deciduous trees and shrubs. The exceptions are spring-flowering shrubs such as lilacs.

* Now is the time to prune fruit trees, except apricot and cherry trees. Clean up leaves and debris around the trees to prevent the spread of disease.

* Prune roses, even if they’re still trying to bloom or sprouting new growth. Strip off any remaining leaves, so the bush will be able to put out new growth in early spring.

* Prune Christmas camellias (Camellia sasanqua), the early-flowering varieties, after their bloom. They don’t need much, but selective pruning can promote bushiness, upright growth and more bloom next winter. Feed with an acid-type fertilizer. But don’t feed your Japonica camellias until after they finish blooming next month. Feeding while camellias are in bloom may cause them to drop unopened buds.

* Clean up leaves and debris around your newly pruned roses and shrubs. Put down fresh mulch or bark to keep roots cozy.

* Apply horticultural oil to fruit trees to control scale, mites and aphids. Oils need 24 hours of dry weather after application to be effective.

* This is also the time to spray a copper-based oil to peach and nectarine trees to fight leaf curl. Avoid spraying on windy days.

* Divide daylilies, Shasta daisies and other perennials.

* Cut back and divide chrysanthemums.

* Plant bare-root roses, trees and shrubs.

* Transplant pansies, violas, calendulas, English daisies, snapdragons and fairy primroses.

* In the vegetable garden, plant fava beans, head lettuce, mustard, onion sets, radicchio and radishes.

* Plant bare-root asparagus and root divisions of rhubarb.

* In the bulb department, plant callas, anemones, ranunculus and gladiolus for bloom from late spring into summer.

* Plant blooming azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons. If you’re shopping for these beautiful landscape plants, you can now find them in full flower at local nurseries.

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