Willing weather brings beautiful blueberries, superb strawberries

Marvin Pritts, a horticulture professor at Cornell University, explains how recent weather conditions have made this year promising for fruit growers.

“We are experiencing a good strawberry crop and anticipate an outstanding blueberry crop. Blueberry fruits have a waxy skin that sheds water so they are much less susceptible to fruit mold than strawberries and raspberries. They are thriving this spring.

“Three conditions have made this year a favorable one for most fruit growers, including strawberry growers. First, the winter was mild with temperatures not as extreme as in the past three years. Second, strawberry plants in most locations in New York were not yet in flower when the last frosts hit. Growers to the south were not so fortunate because plants were in full flower when the last hard frosts occurred, and this did considerable damage to strawberries, blueberries and peaches. Third, there has been ample soil moisture to enlarge fruits.

“This spring was not without problems. The cool temperatures have caused soil to warm slowly, so the season is behind normal in northern parts of the state. Too much rain also can be a problem. Growers have to be concerned about diseases and slugs when consistent rain occurs. Too much moisture and not enough sun also can cause berries to taste a little flat.

“We are experiencing more unpredictable weather and this makes it challenging for growers.”

A Quick Introduction to Growing Your Own Blueberries

Blueberries, and their cousin the cranberry, are the only commercially produced fruit crops that are native to North America. Wild blueberries grow in all regions of the country except in the High Plains and the desert Southwest.

In the early 1900s, Elizabeth White of New Jersey and Fred Coville of the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperated to develop the first hybrid blueberries. Many of their cultivars are still grown commercially today. 

Blueberries often are incorrectly called huckleberries. Huckleberries belong to the genus Gaylussacia. Unlike blueberries, they have 10 comparatively large seeds in each berry, which crunch between your teeth when you eat them. Blueberries belong to the genus Vaccinium, and the 20 or more small seeds in each berry are not noticeable when eaten.

The wild lowbush blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium, is a hardy shrub that usually grows no more than 15 inches tall. Many species of wild blueberry grow naturally throughout the United States. The cultivated blueberry industry is founded on cultivars developed by extensive breeding and selection from the northern highbush blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum, and several related species.

Choosing Cultivars

Selecting appropriate cultivars for home plantings is not a simple matter. In the coldest areas of New York State, gardeners are limited to only the hardiest cultivars, such as Northblue, Northcountry, and Northland, which will survive winters in most areas of USDA Hardiness Zone 3. Patriot, Bluecrop,  Jersey, and Blueray will overwinter in most areas of Zone 4. Gardeners in warmer areas can choose from these and less hardy cultivars, such as Herbert,  Darrow, Spartan, and Bluejay.

Cultivars differ in the size, color, and flavor of their berries and when they ripen. Cultivars are self-fertile, but planting at least two different cultivars improves pollination and increases berry size. The following cultivars are listed by harvest period, from early- to late-ripening blueberries. (For an updated list of nurseries selling blueberry plants, see www.hort.cornell.edu/nursery.)

  • Earliblue—hardy in Zones 5 to 7. Berries are large with light blue skin and have a soft flesh and mild flavor. The fruit does not shatter (drop easily) from the bush, and it is resistant to cracking. Plants are vigorous, productive, upright, and well shaped.
  • Duke—hardy in Zones 5 to 7. This productive newer variety from New Jersey has large fruit with good flavor.
  • Blueray—hardy in Zones 4b to 7. Berries ripen in early midseason and are crack resistant and very large with medium–light blue skin, firm flesh, and a strong flavor and aroma. The plants are upright, spreading, and consistently productive. It overproduces (produces too much fruit, weakening the plant) unless carefully pruned.
  • Patriot—hardy in Zones 4 to 7. It is partially resistant to phytophthora root rot and has excellent-tasting fruit. The plants are vigorous, productive, open, upright, and smaller than other cultivars.
  • Berkeley—hardy in Zones 4 to 8. Berries are very large and light blue and have a mild flavor and firm flesh. Berries ripen in midseason, store well, resist cracking, and do not shatter from the bush. The plants are vigorous, open, spreading, and easy to grow.
  • Bluecrop—hardy in Zones 4b to 7. Berries are medium large and have a light blue skin, an excellent flavor, and firm flesh. Berries shatter somewhat from the bush, but they resist cracking. The plants are vigorous, consistently productive, spreading, and drought tolerant. This is the most popular variety in the world.
  • Herbert—hardy in Zones 5 to 7. Berries ripen in late midseason, are very large and medium blue, and have tender flesh and a very good flavor. They resist cracking and do not shatter from the bush. The plants are consistently productive, vigorous, open, and spreading.
  • Darrow—hardy in Zones 5 to 7. Another variety with exceptional flavor for the home gardener.
  • Jersey—hardy in Zones 4 to 8. Berries are medium sized with medium-blue skin and firm flesh. They keep well, resist cracking, and have a good flavor. The plants are vigorous, productive, erect, and easy to prune.
  • Coville—hardy in Zones 5 to 8. Berries are large and aromatic with medium-blue skin and a tart flavor. They do not shatter from the bush. The plants are productive and late ripening with vigorous, open, and spreading growth that is easily pruned.
  • Lateblue—hardy in Zones 5 to 7. Berries are late ripening, firm, light blue, and highly flavored. The plants are productive and vigorous with erect growth. They ripen in a relatively short time, about seven days after Coville.
  • Elliot—hardy in Zones 4 to 7. These productive plants bear berries that are firm, light blue, and medium sized with a good, mild flavor. They ripen very late in the season, around Labor Day.

To read more about growing your own blueberries and other fruit, click here.

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