Blueberries can be one of the most low-maintenance and pleasurable berries to grow in the temperate permaculture homestead. They are incredibly long-lived plants, ranging from 30-50 years and contain phytonutrients called polyphenols, which not only give these berries their deep blue colours but help decrease inflammation in the human body as well. They are also one of the top temperate-climate fruits to deliver a kick of Vitamin K, an important fat-soluble nutrient. Here is the catch: they die easily; require extremely acidic soil; and have no taproots. In this article, I hope to discuss how to establish and maintain a low-input, long-term, highly-producing, and stable blueberry guild.
There are four fundamental things you need to consider in your blueberry guild.
To grow optimally, blueberries need a porous soil ecosystem that fosters a healthy water cycle above and below ground. A good rule of thumb to follow is: if it rains on Monday and the water is still standing in your desired location by Wednesday evening, then do not plant a blueberry bush there. They will drown.
That being said, there are some caveats to this general rule. A good permaculture blueberry stand design should begin with deeply considering the handling of above-ground water flow. Do we need to decrease water flow and saturation in the design area via diversion swales to mitigate or reduce the water cycle? Or, do we need to direct, pacify, and “sink/store” the energetic water that flows over/through the design area?
Another important caveat is that blueberries have shallow root systems that easily dry-out. Deep-rooted plants can more easily pull up moisture from the subsoil. This helps them maintain hydration during periods of sparse precipitation. But shallow-rooted plants, like blueberries, struggle in dry and brittle-tending environments. Therefore, the blueberry guild design must account for just enough water to nourish but not drown the blueberry’s root systems.
It is important to observe your design location and determine your water-handling needs. During a rain event, stand in the rain and watch the water move through the landscape. Get on your knees and witness the creative interaction between the soil, its many covers and the dancing water.
Idea to mitigate standing water:
Orient your blueberry design in rows on contour. Then, swale the rows to pacify and sink the water flow. Plant the swale with your berries and its berms with perennial and nitrogen-fixing shrubs and ground-covers, punctuating the design with fruit trees to help firm up the swale’s berms and soak up excess moisture. You can plant fast-growing chop-and- drop plants to aid in mulching in the years to come (comfrey, for instance). Don’t forget that, when you pacify and sink water-flow, because your berries do not like standing water, perhaps you orient the swales a degree or so off contour to encourage the excess water (in large weather events) to move gently across the landscape and out of your system (and hopefully into another system!!)
Blueberries require soil with a pH between 4.5 to 5.0. It is best not to “fertilise” your soil to make it more acidic, but rather, to actually “create” the soil you need from scratch.
We have found that this is best achieved by combining shredded pine bark mulch, leaf mould and topsoil during the establishment process. We then add more leaf mould as the year’s progress to maintain the deep mulch and acidifying cover. You can also employ chop-and-drop methods to mulch your system if leaf mould is hard to come by.
Idea to enhance soil acidity:
Dig a 4 foot x 4 foot x 1 foot hole (swale) to plant your blueberry bushes in. During the digging process, you can pile the removed dirt on the downhill side of the hole to form a miniature berm/swale for water soakage. Fill the hole with a mix of shredded pine bark mulch, leaf mould and some topsoil or compost. Plant your bushes directly into this medium. As blueberry roots grow outward and not downward, this acidic cocktail will provide the perfect pH for optimal growth, while also acting as a mulch cover for weed suppression, moisture retention, and optimal microbial growth.
Permaculture seeks to optimise living systems. In a sense, permaculture’s ethics understand that living systems have an upper bound of productivity and abundance that cannot be “pushed.” This is one of the foundational permaculture principles—the difference between optimal and maximum yields. But more on this in another article!
Most, high-bush blueberry bushes, (low-bush bushes are wild types that are either grown at higher altitudes or far up north in the USA) reach optimum potential at 10’ (3 metres) x 10’ (3 metres). What is important to remember is that, wherever two blueberry bushes touch each other, no (or very very little) blueberries will grow there. It is, in the fullest sense, wasted space.
It does not take a mathematician (although that is what I technically am) to realise that planting blueberry bushes too closely lowers each of those bush’s growth and optimal yield by nearly 20 – 50%. The math is simple: if a row of blueberries are planted too closely, the lateral sides of every bush will not fruit optimally, depending on the initial placement of the bushes of course. Although you will create a living hedge, it will be a hedge that produces significantly less food for your farm or family than you may anticipate.
Food for thought: nature does not cram life into overly confined areas to maximise its yield’s potential. Not at least in a temperate climate. Look at the temperate forest and its many layers of succession. For a seedling on the forest floor to optimally grow, some life already in the upper or lower canopy has to die. It’s just that simple.
Idea to capture optimal yield from your blueberry guild:
Plant your blueberry bushes in rows that are spaced 15’ (4.5 metres) apart from each other and each bush within the rows no closer than 10’ (3 metres) apart. You will need to take into account the topographical slope and sun-positioning to calculate the total space needed between rows, but this general equation should get you started.
This last point is quite simple. Make sure that your blueberry bushes receive at least 75% of the daily sunlight in your area. Optimal growth occurs when solar capture is also optimal. Morning through afternoon sun is preferred, as evening shade is tolerated well.
Consider how tall your bushes will be at maturity and design with that in mind. Additionally, strategically placing supporting upper or lower canopy tree species with your guild (stacking) may help firm up swale berms, bolster the water cycle, increase mineral flow, diversify pollination and ultimately provide more food for humans and wildlife.
As with all well-designed systems, start with deep observation and site understanding. Plant a diversity of supporting species within your blueberry guild to encourage pollinators, deter pests, provide sources of living mulches, increase biodiversity and to foster disease resistance.
A sample list of possible temperate plants to establish within and around your patch:
Nasturtium, Heather, Comfrey, White Clover, Yarrow, Vetch, Bee Balm, Lemon Balm, Sage, Annual Rye Grass, Field Pea.