Bring on the Blue

Like the famous old song says, you can find your “thrill on Blueberry Hill.” In this case, the hill is part of The Blueberry Patch, a 65-acre farm and nursery in Mansfield. From the apex, climbers can look down over 27 acres of blueberries. When the blueberries are ripe, the vista is a patchwork quilt of different shades of blue — a thrill to see.

The Blueberry Patch sells potted blueberry plants, operates a pick-your-own operation and sells fresh and frozen blueberries, retail and wholesale. The on-site Blossom Café offers blueberry burgers on certain days, home-roasted Blueberry Danish coffee and tasty blueberry ice tea. The gift shop sells everything blueberry, from jams, pies and syrup to pottery and stationery with a blueberry motif.

And if you have ever enjoyed a blueberry smoothie made at The Ohio State University’s recreation facilities, you are enjoying berries from The Blueberry Patch.

“I’ve been growing blueberries for 30 years,” says Steve Beilstein, an architect, who with his wife, Lisa, and four sons have created Ohio’s largest blueberry plantation. “We are always trying out new varieties. Some blueberry plants live 80 to 100 years, a reason to choose them if your children are also interested in growing them. And, you are choosing a quality fruit that is native to this country.” 

Blueberries are the current darlings of nutritionists and natural food advocates. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the blueberry’s impressive antioxidant ability neutralizes free radicals, which are linked to the development of cancer (thank the berry’s ellagic acid), cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s. Studies also show that blueberries reduce the effects of urinary tract infections and glaucoma. Amazing — something that actually tastes delicious is good for you.

But the berry’s increased popularity has Ohio farmers squeezed. Ohio has a “major shortage” of state-grown blueberries, says Gary Gao, extension horticulturist and associate professor at The Ohio State University South Centers in Piketon. Gao’s research (in connection with the USDA and the Ohio Department of Agriculture) hopes to encourage new blueberry growers and find ways to curtail plant diseases. He also wants to develop varieties that will bloom earlier and later, expanding the growing season.

“Ohio is not Michigan, New Jersey or Oregon, the biggest producers,” says Gao. “It’s not as easy to grow blueberries here. But my goal is to double Ohio’s crop in three to five years.”
Not everyone wants to become a commercial blueberry grower, but it is possible to grow enough blueberries in the back yard to make several blueberry pies or sprinkle on your morning cereal.

Before two or three blueberry plants (the recommended number for cross fertilization) are added to a home garden, test the soil. Gao says blueberries prefer a pH of 4.5 to 5.2. Also, at least 3 percent organic matter should be added to the soil. Gao suggests mixing in elemental sulfur three months before planting as an acidifying agent.

Holes should be about two or three times the size of the root system, and a gallon of peat or sphagnum moss should be added to garden soil. Plants should be placed three to four feet apart; rows 10 feet apart. When the berries start to turn blue, cover with protective gauze, because the birds get up earlier than you do.

“Blueberries really need well-drained soil, full sun and [should] be watered well,” says Tom Dayton, owner of Dayton Nurseries in Norton, who suggests gardeners buy virus-free certified stock and also use Holly-tone fertilizer. “You can plant blueberries in spring, summer, fall or even in a mild winter like the one we had last year.”

Dayton says gardeners should choose varieties of blueberry plants based on preference. Do you want blueberries to eat fresh, to bake or to cook? Or will the plants primarily be part of a landscape design? Also, select plants for the size of the berry (smaller ones won’t “explode” in baking) and the size of the bush. Beilstein recommends the smaller St. Cloud variety for container or patio gardening. Also consider flavor (sweet to tart) and time of ripening, from early June to mid-September.

If growing your own blueberries has little appeal, don’t despair. A number of Ohio fruit farms sell berries you pick or that are already packaged. Most PYO farms charge by the pound or supplied containers. With an earlier spring than normal this year, growers say visit PYO farms before mid-August this year or you will leave with an empty bucket.
Lisa Beilstein is also the 2012 chairman of the Lexington Blueberry Festival, Aug. 16–19. The regional event features blueberry treats, children’s blueberry games and arts and crafts.