Blueberries

Blueberries: A Garden Must Have

Nothing says summertime like fresh ripe blueberries.  Their taste, texture, and color are all pleasures to behold.  Blueberries are a culinary delight with overwhelming nutritional benefits.

They can be added to almost any meal or eaten straight from the garden.  With their unique sweetness and high nutritional profile, blueberries offer an attractive and useful addition to your garden.

Origin

Until the 20th century blueberries as we know them did not exist.  All varieties were wild and not thought able to be cultivated.  In the early 1900’s a New Jersey farmer’s daughter, along with a USDA botanists, began growing what was the start of today’s domesticated blueberries.  By choosing varieties that held desirable properties, wild blueberry plants were crossbreed until they went from the small and sparse wild blueberry, to the plump and plentiful varieties we have now.   

The 3 main varieties of blueberries that are grown today consist of the highbush, lowbush, and hybrid half-high.  All these varieties, as well as numerous other species, are included in the genus Vaccinium L., and fall within the blueberry family of Ericaceae (Heath family).  The relatives of the blueberry include the cranberry, lingonberry, and rhododendron.  For information on other berries and foraging click here: http://permaculturenews.org/2014/06/18/summer-berries-humid-cold-temperate-climate-usa/

Nutrition

A cup of fresh blueberries (148 grams) is 84 calories containing no fat, 1 gram of protein, and 21 grams of carbohydrates (4 grams of which is dietary fiber).  Blueberries are 85% water and offer vitamins A and K, and good dose of vitamin C and manganese.   Blueberries also contain potassium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, zinc, copper, and folate (B-9).  

Blueberries are considered to have the highest antioxidant capacity of all commonly consumed fruits and vegetables. The antioxidants the blueberry possesses belong to the polyphenol family of compounds, specifically flavonoids.  The particular flavonoids in blueberries are anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are responsible for the bluish-purple pigments of blueberries.  

The antioxidant capabilities of blueberries help fight oxidative stress and help reduce inflammation.  The reduction in damage causing oxidative stress and inflammation reduces the effects aging and the possibility of developing cancer and many chronic diseases.  Blueberries have been shown to help reduce blood sugar levels, LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and the risk of heart disease, while improving brain function and insulin sensitivity.  Another benefit to blueberries, much like its cousin the cranberry, is that they help to prevent urinary tract infections.   

Gardening

There is a lot wrapped up in this tiny blue package of fruit, which makes them a must have in the garden.  Besides the health and taste benefits of blueberries, they offer a lot in the way of curb appeal. The blueberry bush bears white (sometimes pink) bell-shaped flowers in springtime.  

The summer brings the ripening of the deep blue fruit, and the fall offers crimson leaves to keep color in your garden nearly all year long.   

Blueberry branch

Blueberries are a perennial that requires full sun and acidic soils (pH range 4-5). Once started, blueberries can take 2-6 years to produce, but can produce for decades.  Blueberry bushes should be planted in holes 2’ deep, 1.5’ wide, and 5-10’ apart (depending on variety).  After planting, mulch around the plants immediately and be sure to add 1-2” of water each week.  This will keep the plant’s roots moist, which is essential for growth and survival.  Fertilizer can be added a month or two after planting.  Plants can be pruned to stimulate new growth, although this isn’t essential until the plants reach 3-4 years old of age.  

Blueberries benefit from crosspollination.  They usually need 3 varieties of the same species to allow for adequate fruit production.  Plus with additional varieties, this will extend your harvest season.  

Once your plants begin to produce, the harvest of blueberries usually comes in the summer months.  However, it’s best not to pick blueberries until they fall off with just the slightest touch.  This will ensure they are ripe and ready to eat.    

While you will be excited to taste your fresh summer crop of blueberries, so will our feathery friends.  Many birds love fresh berries and take no mind to whose garden they take them from.  If you prefer not to share all your hard work with avian bandits, there are steps you can take.  

To keep the bird population out of your garden, cover bushes with netting or place owl figurines around your garden to keep out most birds.  However, keeping birds out of your garden also keeps out the benefits they offer.  Many birds keep our gardens free of snails, slugs, and harmful insects. So it is up to you to weigh the pros and cons. To learn more about mutualistic bird relationships click here: http://permaculturenews.org/2017/01/04/rare-example-mutualism-humans-free-living-wild-animal/

Mildew can also be a problem for blueberries.  In lieu of using potentially harmful fungicides, try these suggestions.  If you see a white powdery spotting taking over your plants, remove the infected areas, but don’t toss the removed plant pieces into your compost pile or near your garden, as the mildew can spread via wind dispersion.  You can spray each plant with a mixture of 1 teaspoon baking soda to every 1 quart of water.     

Using Blueberries in the Kitchen

As plants mature and crops of blueberries begin coming in, this is the time to appreciate your efforts. Simply eating blueberries fresh can be a great way to enjoy them, but you may find you have too many.  Freezing blueberries is a great option to preserve and have blueberries in the nonproducing months. To freeze blueberries simple wash, let dry, put on a cookie sheet, and place in the freezer.  Laying them flat reduces clumping.  Once frozen, place them in sealable freezer compatible containers.  These can be used later for munching or baking.   
If you want to use some of your fresh blueberries right away, here’s a recipe to try:

Blueberry Salsa

Ingredients
2 cups fresh blueberries
Juice of 1 lime or lemon (mind the seeds)
1-3 jalapenos that have been seeded and diced*
1 red onion, diced
½ cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
Salt to taste

Directions
Put all ingredients in a bowl and mix well.  If you prefer a smoother salsa, put all ingredients in a food processor and blend to desired texture. This salsa goes well with fish and chicken dishes.  

Don’t be afraid to use your artistic license with this recipe.  If you don’t like spicy, replace jalapenos with bell pepper.  Add additional fruit, such as fresh strawberries.  Make this salsa your own!

*Be cautious when cutting or removing seeds of jalapenos.  Wear gloves and wash hands immediately after.  

Reap what you sow

Blueberries are a fruit to delight the eyes and taste buds.  They are as beautiful in the garden as they are in the kitchen.  While you will have to be patient to see the fruits of your labor, the reward you reap will be worth the wait.  Begin now, and in the coming years you will have a delicious and stunning nutritional powerhouse growing in your own backyard.   

References:

Krishnamurthy, R. January 4, 2017. Permaculture Research Institute.  A Rare Example of Mutualism Between Humans and Free-Living Wild Animal. http://permaculturenews.org/2017/01/04/rare-example-mutualism-humans-free-living-wild-animal/

Leech, J. 2017. Authority Nutrition. An Evidence-based Approach. 10 Proven Health Benefits of Blueberries. https://authoritynutrition.com/10-proven-benefits-of-blueberries/

Natural Resource Conservation Service. 2016. US Department of Agriculture.  Classification for Kingdom Plantae Down to Family Ericaceae. https://plants.usda.gov/java/ClassificationServlet?source=display&classid=Ericaceae

The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Blueberries. Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Blueberries. http://www.almanac.com/plant/blueberries

Pinterest.com. 2017. Google.com. Blueberry Bush. https://www.google.com/search?q=blueberry+bush+fall&biw=1219&bih=878&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwifk5Pnm9nRAhXE1IMKHc9BCdcQsAQIVA#tbm=isch&q=blueberry+bush

SelfNutritionData.com. 2014. Self Nutrition Data. Know what you eat. Blueberries, raw Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1851/2

SFGate. SFGate.com. Home Guides. Garden. Gardening. How Long Does it Take Blueberry Plants to Produce? http://homeguides.sfgate.com/long-blueberry-plants-produce-60750.html

Toensmeier, E. June 18, 2014. Permaculture Research Institute.  Summer Berries in a Humid Cold Temperate Climate (USA). http://permaculturenews.org/2014/06/18/summer-berries-humid-cold-temperate-climate-usa/

U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. 2017. U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. History of Blueberries. Blueberries – Celebrating 100 Years. http://www.blueberrycouncil.org/about-blueberries/history-of-blueberries/

Wikipedia. December 23, 2016. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Anthocyanin. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthocyanin

Wikipedia. January 17, 2017. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Blueberry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blueberry#Uses

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