Too much trouble?


In the recent online gardening newsletter of the University of Maryland Extension service a homeowner writes in, wanting to begin an edible garden, and inquiring if blueberries are a good starting point. The answer, intended as encouragement, is a detailed listing of the cultural requirements of blueberries, including sunlight exposure, pH and moisture requirements, and preferred soil type. A soil test is recommended to determine if the desired range of acidity is present, and advice is provided on amending the soil with a mix of compost, leaf mold, and peat moss. And I wonder.

Blueberry flowering at the start of April

All the information is unquestionably correct, but will the homeowner will be overwhelmed by the requirements, and are they likely to give up and figure this is just too complicated and too darn hard? I suspect so.

It’s not. Yes, with any plant there are potential complications, but as long as blueberries are given a sunny spot and somewhat regular watering, and they’re not planted in an absolute swamp, they’ll live and probably flourish. There will be fruit, though if there’s a difficulty, the question is will there be fruit to harvest?

Until a few years ago, I grew blueberries so that I could grab a handful while strolling through the garden in early summer, and usually I’d meander back around for a few more handfuls before I finished. The large shrubs had been transplanted from an Oregon berry farm, and for years the fruits were plentiful. At the end of the bearing season for this short season blueberry variety there were inevitably a few leftovers for the birds, so the shrubs were quickly picked clean.Blueberries on the bush

But, as the garden expanded and the large koi pond was constructed, the blueberries had to go. The shrubs were too large to bother with transplanting, and I couldn’t really figure a good spot with enough sun anyhow, so they were dug out and discarded. But, after a few years I got a hankering for fresher blueberries than I could purchase from the local grocer, though the large shrubs were no longer available. And, the only spot I could figure for the two smaller blueberries was too shaded to be ideal, and I knew this could never result in the robust crops I once grew.

So, I planted the blueberries a few years ago, and I haven’t harvested a single blueberry since. But, the birds certainly enjoy them. As for care, they get none, along with the rest of the garden. The only time anything gets watered in this garden is in the week or two after planting. Maybe, but most often no watering is needed. Ever.

Yes, I try to plant the right plant in the right place, but the blueberries have fared reasonably well in less than an ideal circumstance. The location is too shaded, and probably a bit too damp, so the shrubs grow a little more open and bear a fraction fewer fruits. Since there are hardly enough fruits on the still small shrubs to worry about, I don’t even think about protecting them from the birds. That’s as much the reason that I planted the two new ones, and perhaps some day the blueberries will grow large enough to provide enough for the birds and me.Winter daphne in early March

And, blueberries are hardly different than anything else you’ll plant. Yes, there are some difficult plants that people who consider that they have brown thumbs should avoid. Don’t plant daphnes, and watch that plants that prefer shade or part shade aren’t planted where they’ll get the afternoon sun in July and August. Don’t plant too deep. Again, don’t plant too deep. Leave a few inches of the container or burlapped rootball above the existing ground level. Too many plants are killed by digging a hole that is too large and too deep.

Soil amendments (including compost) are nice enough, but they’re not necessary with most soils (such as clay, though sand often requires additional organic matter). The soil in my garden ranges from rocky to silty clay, and I don’t recall ever adding a bag or shovel full of anything to a planting hole. Certainly, do not add an amendment of any sort without mixing it with at least two-thirds native soil (no matter how poor you think it is). If you have compost, give the plants a thin topdressing along with a mulch of some sort to conserve moisture as plants are getting started. This, they’ll appreciate.

I advise not to bother digging a gigantic hole (not too deep or too wide). The width doesn’t hurt a thing, so if you’re so inclined, go ahead and dig a hole several times the width of the roots. But, there’s little or no evidence that this helps a thing. Yes, I know there are old time gardeners who swear by twice (or three times) the width and half again as deep, but I’m an old timer myself, and I’ve never dug a hole one inch wider than what was needed to fit the rootball into. I dig only wide enough to be able to fit my foot sideways into the hole to gently firm the soil. And, remarkably, plants live (even daphnes).

So, if you’re at all like me you might have read the first paragraph and skipped to the last, and if so, you’ve hardly missed a thing. Don’t worry. Do less and plants will survive and flourish. But don’t plant too deep. Just about every other detail makes a relatively simple procedure seem discouragingly difficult.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Anne says:

    I always enjoy your writing Dave and particularly so today. I planted a blueberry almost 10 years ago and only get enough berrys to feed the birds. Not enough sun I’m afraid. Thnak you for once again getting us through the winter!

    1. Dave says:

      Over the past few days spring has seemed far off, but the next week looks as if it will turn around and we might experience more than a day or two of warm temperatures. I’m ready, though the garden has a long way to go. I’m hoping not to follow up a long winter of whining about cold with a long spring whining that I’m so far behind. I’ll attempt to put a positive spin on my miseries.

  2. Jenny says:

    I always enjoy your posts, but particularly this one. So many people want to make gardening more difficult than it needs to be. I have been gardening for over 20 years and have found that trial and error is the best teacher. And like you, I never dig a super-wide hole when planting something new, but until now I have always felt vaguely guilty about it. No more! P.S. Thanks for the advice about getting rid of gum balls the other day.

    1. Dave says:

      Visitors to my garden accuse that I’m disingenuous when I respond to being asked why everything looks so vigorous that I do less than the average gardener. Certainly I take credit for having a good feel for planting the right plant in the right place, and one thing I can assure you, I never plant too deep.

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