Will blueberries grow well in dry Nevada?

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Recently someone asked me about growing blueberries in Nevada. These natives of eastern North America thrive under conditions that suit their relatives, azaleas and rhododendrons, according to the Sunset Western Garden Book. They grow best with cool, moist acid soil with a pH of 4.5 to 5.5. They also need good drainage.

These requirements can make growing blueberries in Nevada a challenge. Rarely is it cool in the summer and rarely are the soils acid. More often we have hot dry, windy summer conditions and soils with a pH from 7.5 to over 8 (basic or alkaline). We might successfully grow blueberries in containers or raised beds filled with peat moss and acid soil mixes.

The blueberries we find in the grocery store are highbush types of Vaccinium corymbosum. The northern varieties suitable for our winters require definite winter cold and fruit ripens from late spring to late summer. In an optimum environment, they grow about 6 feet tall. Since Nevada will rarely have optimal conditions for blueberries, I expect they will be much shorter here. They should be planted in early spring in a peat-amended soil so that the crown is no more than 1/2 inch below the ground. Plant at least two varieties for pollination in a partially shaded location.

If you pick types that ripen at different times, you may make your fruiting season last longer. Cover the soil over the root area with 3 inches to 4 inches of peat, sawdust or bark to protect this plant's shallow roots and help acidify the soil. Then, keep the plants constantly moist all year long. You will have to use an acid-forming fertilizer, such as a rhododendron food. You may also have to treat for iron deficiencies with an iron sulfate or iron chelate.

Keep first-year plants from producing fruit by pruning off all the flowers. This will promote good root and plant development. Older plants need to be pruned back to where the fruit buds are located or you can remove one-third of the oldest branches each year. If you are lucky enough to have berries develop, you will want to put netting on the plants to keep the birds away from the fruit.

Attend University of Nevada Cooperative Extension's next free class on "Controlling Pests" in our popular "Grow Your Own" series, Oct. 4 from 6 to 8 p.m. at our classroom, 2621 Northgate, #12. Call 887-2252 to reserve your seat.

• JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and may be reached at skellyj@unce.unr.edu or 887-2252.


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