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Gardening with Nature #2: Developing a Blueberry Guild

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Blog entry by Radicalfarmergal posted 444 days ago 2120 reads 0 times favorited 13 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: Food Forest Garden Part 2 of Gardening with Nature series no next part

I have a blueberry patch on the western side of my property that contains nine northern high-bush blueberry plants that are approximately five years old. The varieties include: Northblue, Northsky, Northland, Early Bluejay, Bluecrop, Jersey and Patriot. Given the variety of bushes, our harvest is staggered from early July to late August. Around the bushes I have a thick groundcover of pine needles, woodchips, Creeping Charlie, French sorrel and strawberries. The Creeping Charlie thrives, no matter how often I pull it up out of the mulch; the sorrel and strawberries struggle. I believe that the soil is too acid for the strawberries and sorrel. Although the Creeping Charlie attracts pollinators all summer, I want to be able to keep the creeping Charlie in check because it also tends to chokes out the interior of my bushes. Creeping Charlie might work as a ground cover when my bushes are much taller but right now it competes with my bushes for moisture and blocks air circulation. In order to make this area more self-reliant, I want to try to create a guild of plants that will cooperate naturally in this part of my yard. Given that my children want me to plant dozens more blueberry bushes somewhere in the yard; I had better figure something out that will work!

Step One: Determining the Needs and Characteristics of Blueberry Bushes

• Blueberries need full sun for optimal fruit bearing.
• Blueberry bushes have very shallow root systems and are sensitive to water fluctuations, requiring one to two inches of water per week from blooming to harvest. We are generously blessed with sufficient rainfall most of the year, but in the hot, dry weeks of summers, supplemental watering is required to ensure an abundant harvest of large fruit.
• Blueberries prefer very acidic soil, with a pH between 4 and 4.5, containing at least 4 to 7% organic matter.
• They are multi-stemmed shrubs, ranging in height from four to seven feet at maturity.
• Blueberry bushes have flat, mostly shallow roots that grow like a plate around the plant and may have a few deeper roots. They are stoloniferous, rooting from creeping stems above the ground.
• They are native to eastern North America and are naturally found growing in old fields, thickets, open woods and forests.
• Easy access to the plants is essential for harvesting and pruning. For increased production, annual pruning is recommended after the bushes are established. I have seen recommendations for spacing varying between 2.5 feet and 5 feet between bushes.

Step Two: Choosing companion plants for the Guild

In choosing companions, I am looking for plants that will perform the functions that are found in a healthy ecosystem. These include:

• plants that provide fertilizer (through nitrogen fixing or attracting wildlife that will leave nitrogen-rich droppings),
• plants that bring nutrients into the cycle (dynamic accumulators that have deep roots that can bring minerals up from the bedrock,
• plants that cover and protect the soil (create mulch, provide a living mulch),
• insectary plants that provide housing and food for beneficial wildlife over the longest period of time, and
• plants that help cultivate the soil with deep roots that penetrate, loosen and aerate the soil.

In choosing guild members, I want a diverse collection of perennial plants that thrive in USDA zone 5, with a preference toward native plants when possible. The biggest limitation to choosing companion plants seems to be the high acid requirement that blueberries have, so that is where I started my search. For ideas, I looked through one of the indices in Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture, Vol. II by Dave Jacke & Eric Toensmeier to find plants that have similar soil pH needs.

Size and space requirements are also a consideration. If I planted white pines near the blueberries, I wouldn’t have to manually bring in pine needles every few years but I don’t have room for a white pine in this corner of my yard. Instead, I have planted several white pines in the wild part of our yard so that I won’t have to transport the needles far. I focused primarily on herbs because I want the blueberries to be the top canopy layer to take full advantage of the sunlight. Going through the index, I found these possibilities:

• Nodding Wild Onion (bulb)
• Fortune’s Groundnut (vine)
• Swamp Milkweed
• Wild Blue Indigo
• Golden Saxifrage
• Bluebead Lily
• Goldthread
• Dwarf Tickseed
• Sheep Sorrel
• Cardinal flower
• Lupine
• Ostrich Fern
• Solomon’s Seal
• Meadow Beauty
• Cloudberry

Using the index was helpful because many of these herbs were unfamiliar to me and the index allowed me to expand my search. After I had a preliminary list, I went through the needs, characteristics, functions and drawbacks of each plant on my list to determine whether they would be good additions to the guild. Some I was able to eliminate because they had characteristics that would compete with the blueberries. For example, ostrich ferns and swamp milkweed are too tall to plant between the bushes, but I could put them at the edges of the guild as transition plants. Others, such as Goldthread, I removed from consideration because they didn’t fill many functions. Based on my research, here are my possible blueberry guild companions and why I chose them:

Lupine (Lupinus perennis) – A native, clumping herb that accumulates nitrogen, acts as a dynamic accumulator, provides shelter for beneficial wildlife, is a generalist nectary and will act as a ground cover to choke out weeds if it is sown thickly enough. Lacewings lay their eggs on the leaves and spiders hide in the foliage. It flowers in May, June and July. An early blooming flower will lure insects to the guild so that they will return when the blueberries are blooming. One drawback is that the plant is poisonous but my children are well educated on what is edible and what is not and I don’t allow my goats to forage in the blueberry patch.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) – A native, clumping herb with fibrous roots, it provides food for wildlife and is a generalist nectary. Hummingbirds particularly find the nectar appealing. I have wanted to get some of these gorgeous flowers for quite some time, now I have an extra reason. It blooms in August and September.

Fortune’s Groundnut (Apios fortunei) – A non-native (Asian) vine with tuberous, edible roots, it fixes nitrogen, provides shelter for beneficial insects and is a generalist nectary. Lacewings lay eggs on the leaves and parasitoid wasps shelter in the foliage. The plant produces delicious tubers along its rhizomes that are high in protein. Finding a source for this plant appears to be difficult but there is a North American variety (Apios Americana) that Native Americans cultivated for centuries. This variety does not have the same preference for strongly acidic soil but I might just give our native vine a try in the guild anyway.

Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum) – A native bulb with soft, grasslike leaves and a flowering stalk. The bulbs are edible in its second year. It serves as a generalist insectary and its mild, oniony scent may help distract insects that feed on the blueberries. Gentle harvesting of the bulbs can help loosen soil that becomes compacted over time.

Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) – A running herb that spreads by rhizomes with edible roots and leaves. It will also serve as a ground cover to choke out weeds. These will have to be planted some distance from the blueberry bushes to ensure the plant height does not block sunlight from the blueberries and that harvesting the roots will not disturb the shallow roots of the blueberry bushes.

Cloudberry (Rubus chamacmorus) – A native, clumping herb, it grows about eight inches tall, with edible fruit. It provides food for wildlife and is a generalist nectary, flowering in June

Meadow Beauty (Rhexia virginica) – A native, clumping herb, it grows between one and two feet in height, with edible greens and root. This tends to grow naturally in sandy, swampy areas on the coastal plain so it might be a challenge to grow it here without amending our clay soil with sand.

Wild Blue Indigo (Baptista australis) – A native, clumping herb with a deep taproot, it acts as a nitrogen fixer and provides shelter for beneficial insects and is a generalist nectary. It flowers in July and August.

Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium americanum) – A native flowering herb that makes a very low, dense, prostrate carpet across the ground. The greens are edible and it is a nectary plant offering small greenish blooms in April, May and June. It prefers shade or part shade and abundant water. My blueberry patch might be too dry for it to thrive.

When I include plants that tolerate acidic soil, just not in such a high concentration, the list of possible choices grows even longer. To name just a few, I could include yarrow, maidenhair ferns, hardy kiwifruit, Welsh onion, hog peanut, American groundnut, wild ginger and borage in my garden if the acidity of the soil is slightly less than optimal for the blueberries. As I already have yarrow, borage and perennial onions growing elsewhere in my gardens, it will be easy to try including them in the guild.

I guess my next step will be to see if I can easily and affordably locate some of these choices….

-- "...I have nothing against authorities as such; I am only in favor of putting a question mark after just about everything they say." Ruth Stout



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Radicalfarmergal

4251 posts in 1739 days
hardiness zone 5b

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13 comments so far

View Jimthecarver's profile

Jimthecarver

111 posts in 1001 days
hardiness zone 8b

posted 444 days ago

I enjoy reading your posts…very educational.
Remembering back as a kid floating down the rivers grabbing berries as we passed….those were the days. :-)

-- JTC

View ChuckV's profile

ChuckV

24 posts in 1738 days

posted 444 days ago

I have just one question that you might be able to answer. Is this going to increase or decrease my mowing time?

Thanks.

-- "...and the flowers bloom like madness in the spring."

View MsDebbieP's profile

MsDebbieP

14622 posts in 2476 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 443 days ago

excellent.

I read somewhere that for blueberries, when you are watering them, to add some vinegar to the water. I’ve been contemplating how to do that with my greywater system.

-- - Debbie, SW Ontario Canada (USDA Hardiness Zone: 5a)

View Radicalfarmergal's profile

Radicalfarmergal

4251 posts in 1739 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 443 days ago

Jim, thank you. I thought I would share the research I did in case someone else is thinking along similar lines. Do you have space to grow some southern blueberry bushes? Picking blueberries along the river is a wonderful childhood memory. Next summer when we go kayaking, we will have to look for blueberries along the river banks. Where I grew up, blueberries were a rare and expensive summer treat, but now we harvest enough from local farms to freeze and enjoy all year. In a few years, I hope we can harvest enough of our own berries to fill our freezer.

Chuck, how are your slalom skills? Just kidding. The guild will be one large ellipse, easy to circumnavigate. : )

Debbie, before you add vinegar to your water, test the pH of your soil to see if you need to make it even more acidic. The pH levels of undiluted commercial white vinegar range between 2.5 and 3.5 which is even more acidic than your blueberry plants prefer. the pH of undiluted apple cider vinegar is higher, between 4.25 and 5.0. Our soil starts out quite acidic so just adding pine needles, wood chips and infrequent, thin layers of sawdust from the workshop is sufficient for amending our soil conditions and it makes a great mulch to hold water in the soil. Are you planning to empty your gray water out by your blueberry bushes? Does vinegar have another use in gray water systems? My understanding is that gray water shouldn’t be used on vegetables or herbs but is fine for fruit trees and bushes.

-- "...I have nothing against authorities as such; I am only in favor of putting a question mark after just about everything they say." Ruth Stout

View ChuckV's profile

ChuckV

24 posts in 1738 days

posted 443 days ago

How are your slalom skills?

I won the silver in Riding Mower Slalom at the 1984 Olympic Games in LA. It was a photo finish. I still think that the gold should have been mine!

I’m a bit older now, but I still cut a mean curve. Anyway, you would not mind if I took a “shortcut” every now and then, would you?

-- "...and the flowers bloom like madness in the spring."

View Radicalfarmergal's profile

Radicalfarmergal

4251 posts in 1739 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 443 days ago

Note to self: Hide the keys to the mower before summer comes.

-- "...I have nothing against authorities as such; I am only in favor of putting a question mark after just about everything they say." Ruth Stout

View MsDebbieP's profile

MsDebbieP

14622 posts in 2476 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 442 days ago

I forget what the dilution ratio was for the added vinegar. It wasn’t very much.
As for greywater – if it is filtered, I would think that it would be ok re: vegetables. I wouldn’t put it directly onto an edible part of the plant but filtered—if it is good enough to drink it is good enough for the vegetables.

My greywater will be used for the blueberries.

-- - Debbie, SW Ontario Canada (USDA Hardiness Zone: 5a)

View Radicalfarmergal's profile

Radicalfarmergal

4251 posts in 1739 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 442 days ago

I predict that your blueberries will enjoy the extra regular watering and I think it is wonderful that you are figuring out how to use your gray water. You are an inspiration for change, Debbie. If I could figure out a way to do it here without major plumbing renovation and costing a considerable amount, I would.

-- "...I have nothing against authorities as such; I am only in favor of putting a question mark after just about everything they say." Ruth Stout

View MsDebbieP's profile

MsDebbieP

14622 posts in 2476 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 442 days ago

I do hope my plan works out. It “should” and my blueberries are going to love it, I’m sure.

-- - Debbie, SW Ontario Canada (USDA Hardiness Zone: 5a)

View justjoel's profile

justjoel

1042 posts in 1856 days
hardiness zone 7a

posted 433 days ago

Would clover, which is a nitrogen fixer, be good around the blueberries?

-- "We are stardust. We are golden. And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." Joni Mitchell

View Radicalfarmergal's profile

Radicalfarmergal

4251 posts in 1739 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 432 days ago

Thank you for the good suggestion, Joel! The low growing white clover would make an excellent green ground cover except that the soil around my blueberries is too acidic for it to thrive. Dutch white clover prefers a pH level between 6 and 6.5; the soil around the blueberries is much more acidic, around 4.5. I tried to grow clover between the blueberry bushes and it did spread for awhile, but as the rainfall and pine needles increased the acidity in the soil, the clover has all disappeared.

I do use clover as a ground cover in and around my vegetables that prefer neutral soils. If the clover isn’t thriving, it is usually a sign that I need to mix in a little dolomitic lime in with lots of organic matter to help raise the pH before the next growing season.

-- "...I have nothing against authorities as such; I am only in favor of putting a question mark after just about everything they say." Ruth Stout

View lavender22's profile

lavender22

85 posts in 429 days
hardiness zone 8a

posted 401 days ago

I really enjoy your post’s. This was a great one:)

-- I love hostas:)

View Radicalfarmergal's profile

Radicalfarmergal

4251 posts in 1739 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 398 days ago

Thank you, Lavender22. I am looking forward to when the snow finally melts so that I can work in my blueberry garden. Do you have any blueberry plants?

-- "...I have nothing against authorities as such; I am only in favor of putting a question mark after just about everything they say." Ruth Stout

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