Bountiful Blueberries

The plentiful, healthful fruit is surprisingly easy to grow

June 25, 2008|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun reporter

A series to help you cook with the bounty of the season.

It's blueberry season, a time for filling pails and pie shells.

From now until the first week in August, home cooks can visit farms in just about every county of Maryland and load their buckets with blueberries for about $2 a pound. Or, if you are Carol Kressen of Ellicott City, you can step into your yard, where a half-dozen blueberry bushes planted by the home's previous owner produce more blueberries than your three children can eat - or sell.

"The first year, we picked about 48 quarts before I stopped counting," said Kressen, whose favorite way to make use of the blueberries is in a pie recipe she adapted from The Fanny Farmer Cookbook.

"I served it once at a dinner party to a guest who loved it and then admitted that he didn't even like blueberries."

Her youngest, Melissa, 5, eats the blueberries as fast as she picks them from the branches that hang just above her head. The bushes are covered with netting that keeps greedy birds away.

Kressen's twins, Kathleen and Joey, 7, often open up a stand at the end of the driveway and sell cups full of the blue-gray berries for 25 cents each.

"People get halfway down the street and come back for more," said the mother of the entrepreneurs.

Terry Freed of Garden of Eden Orchards in Salisbury sells blueberries, too. But he has more than six bushes in his backyard. He has 6,000.

"It is a fun crop to grow in your backyard," he said. "They take little or no spraying. The only thing with blueberries is that the birds love them."

Birds can make a serious dent in the production of a single mature bush, which might yield 10 quarts a year.

"My mother came down from Massachusetts," said Kressen, who thinks her bushes might be about 25 years old. "And we'd picked about six quarts in an hour. There were so many and it was so hot, I finally said, 'Mom. Enough.' Sometimes you just have to walk away," said Kressen.

Blueberries aren't just for muffins or pies anymore. They are for soups, salads, salsas and sauces. Cooks are finding savory recipes for this bountiful crop. Kressen sprinkles blueberries on salads and even created a blueberry vinaigrette in addition to jams and pies.

"And I freeze a lot of them," she said.

Cookbook author Linda Dannenberg produced a whole batch of recipes that use blueberries in ways you might not have considered: butter, borscht and barbecue sauce among them. She even offers a recipe for a blueberry martini in her book, True Blueberry : Delicious Recipes for Every Meal," written after she began to see blueberries used in savory recipes during her travels in France and in the Caribbean.

"I love blueberries myself and I never found enough recipes to use all the blueberries I bought in the summer," said Dannenberg from her home in Westchester County, N.Y.

Of all the recipes in the book, the one for blueberry steak sauce was the biggest hit. "I had a barbecue and invited my neighbors. They were blown away by it. They wanted me to bottle it," Dannenberg said.

It surprised Dannenberg how well the acid-sweetness of blueberries worked in savory recipes. "Their character changes when you add a little spice and a little heat."

Their versatility makes blueberries popular with gardeners.

Lauren Kitch of Valley View Farms in Cockeysville said the lawn and garden center sold out of blueberry bushes quickly this spring, and had to order more of the Jersey Blue, Blue Jay, Blue Crop and Blue Ray varieties, which are about 1 1/2 feet tall and sell for about $25 each.

These cultivars, which differ from wild blueberries in height and berry size, will produce berries in about three years. (The flowers should be pinched back the first two years to encourage root strength and growth.)

Although cross-pollination isn't required, it can produce bigger and more abundant berries, so casual growers, like Kitch, who has eight bushes in her yard, should plant more than one.

"They are very easy to grow," said Kitch. "They like our acid soil."

Freed said the soil pH needs to be tested before planting and should be low, about 4.5. Add sulfur or aluminum sulfate if needed, he said.

"And you should plant them in well-drained soil," he said. "The plant doesn't like to sit in water, but it never wants to dry out, either."

Freed also suggests adding organic matter to the soil when planting blueberry bushes - peat moss or compost.

It is important to cover the bushes with netting, or the birds will beat you to your harvest. But consider that the birds also can get caught in that netting, as can some other unwelcome visitors. Kressen's husband, Parker, untangled a pair of very large rat snakes last year.

The blueberries available at you-pick-'em farms and for planting in your own yard are the Northern high bush variety, which grow as tall as 7 feet.

Wild blueberries - for which Maine and Michigan are so famous - can be found on the Delmarva Peninsula, too, Freed said. The bushes are low and scruffy-looking and the berries are smaller, but very flavorful.

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