Q&A: Blueberries for the Southwest

Here's a tip on how to grow your own blueberries.

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Q: What are some recommended blueberry varieties for the Southwest, especially for high-altitude areas? I'd like to grow them on my balcony.

A: You're asking for a challenge! Blueberries of any type need acid soil, and since the soils of the Southwest are alkaline, growing them in containers is the only way you'll have even a shot at success. But there's another problem, says Curtis Smith, extension horticulture specialist with the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service in Albuquerque: well water in the Southwest is typically alkaline as well — or is high in salts, sodium or bicarbonates, all of which are detrimental to blueberries — so eventually the irrigation water itself will bring the blueberry plants to an early end. "Rain water is less calcareous but you probably won't be able to collect enough to keep them watered," he says. Acidifiers have limited effectiveness.

If you'd like to try growing blueberries anyway and don't mind short-lived plants, do this: choose a dwarf variety and plant in very large containers (like a half whisky barrel), using an acid potting soil (such as that for azaleas and rhododendrons). Place in an area where the plants will get afternoon shade (especially important at the higher altitudes), and keep adequately watered.

In general, rabbiteye blueberries are suited to warmer areas of the South. Colder regions are better suited to northern highbush varieties. A third type, southern highbush, is generally suited to areas between the two other varieties. Northern highbush or southern highbush might suit you better, but of the three types, rabbiteye may be slightly more tolerant of less-than-ideal soil and water conditions. To be sure, check with extension personnel or nurserymen in your local area. Select at least two varieties for cross pollination. Three or more varieties are even better. If you can't locate an acid-based potting soil, mix your own with half peat moss and half sand.

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