Blueberries

I’m not usually a sweet eater, especially in the morning. A bowl of cereal, a Danish or donut, does nothing for me.

However, there is one breakfast food that I just can’t pass up — blueberry pancakes. I don’t even use syrup. Sweet, juicy blueberries that burst inside the pancake (and a good slathering of butter) are all I need.

All types of berries can usually be found at my house. They make for a great snack that satisfies both the sweet-tooth in the house, my son, and the trying-to-eat-healthy husband. Mine usually end up in a bowl of frozen vanilla yogurt with a drizzle of chocolate sauce. Maybe I am a sweet eater afterall.

All berries have wonderful health benefits attached to them, but blueberries are an antioxidant powerhouse. Research shows antioxidants reduce the aging of cells and help reduce various cancers and cardiovascular diseases when eaten regularly. They are also one of the most nutrient rich berries, containing high amounts of fiber, vitamins C and K and manganese.

Growing blueberries in the home orchard starts with selecting the right type for your growing environment. There are three native and one nonnative types of blueberries grown commercially in North America. Northern highbush and lowbush blueberries are grown in the cooler regions of the United States.

Southern highbush blueberries are a hybrid that have been successful in northern Florida and southern Georgia. Although Southern highbush have a cold-hardy designation to include Zone 7, they bloom and ripen 1 to 3 weeks earlier than the earliest rabbiteye, making them susceptible to crop loss with early spring freezes.

Rabbiteye blueberries (V. ashei) are native to Alabama, making them the best choice for the home orchard. Rabbiteye plants grow in bush form and can reach a height of 12 to 15 feet if not pruned. A mature bush of 6 to 8 feet can produce 10 to 15 pounds of blueberries. Think of all the pancakes you can make with that! Just in case you can’t eat all you harvest before they spoil, blueberries freeze beautifully.

Rabbiteye blueberries require between 350 to 650 chill hours, depending on the variety. A chill hour is basically an hour that the plant spends in cooler temperatures, between 32 to 45 degrees. This dormant period allows the plant to “rest,” helping it to produce its crop.

Between February and March, the plant will start to produce small, white, bell-shaped flowers. Late spring frosts could cause damage to the delicate flowers, which will eventually produce the fruit, so some protection practices, such as covering them in the evening, should be employed. Make sure to remove the covering in the morning to allow proper air circulation and sunlight for the plant.

Plant blueberries in a site that receives between 8 to 10 hours of direct sunshine. Alabama soils tend to be naturally acidic, which is the perfect soil conditions for acid-loving blueberries. The soil pH should range between 4.5 and 5.5.

Soil should have good drainage, and organic matter such as peat moss should be added to the planting hole and mixed in before planting. Water plants well through the first season and while plants are producing fruit. Blueberry plants are drought-tolerant once established.

Berries mature from light green to red, and then from bright to powdery blue. Mature berries can be harvested from June through August, depending on the variety. Pick berries when they are fully ripe. Blueberries are nonclimacteric, meaning they cease ripening when picked.

Blueberry plants do not require major annual pruning, although, weak hanging or damaged shoots should be removed. Branches growing in the plant center should also be thinned. When plants are 6 to 7 years old, pruning may be needed to renew the plant and to maintain the desired height of the plant.

Cut seven-year canes or older to the ground during the dormant season. Canes that are too tall to easily harvest can be cut back 1 or more feet below the desired height using staggered cuts. Flowers and fruit develop on previous season growth, so do not cut back more than ¼ to 1/3 of the oldest canes in any single year.

Pretty little flowers in spring, bountiful berries in summer, and brilliant foliage in fall make blueberries a wonderful three-season shrub. Until next week, happy gardening and bon appétit.

This recipe includes not only blueberries, but walnuts and oatmeal for a nutrient-packed muffin.

Blueberry-Walnut Oatmeal Muffins

Ingredients

• 1-1/4 cups uncooked quick or old-fashioned oatmeal

• 1-1/4 cups flour

• 1/3 cup sugar

• 1 tablespoon baking powder

• ½ teaspoon salt

• 1 cup milk

• 1 egg

• ¼ cup oil (1/3 cup applesauce can be substituted)

• ½ cup chopped walnuts

• ¾ cup fresh or frozen blueberries

Topping

• 2 tablespoons sugar

• 2 teaspoons cinnamon

Directions

Preheat oven to 425° F. Combine oats, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl.

In another bowl, combine milk, egg and oil (or applesauce).

Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix until just moist (do not beat).

Fold in blueberries and walnuts.

Fill greased muffin cups 2/3 full.

Mix topping ingredients and sprinkle over muffin batter.

Bake for 20-25 minutes.

Makes 12 muffins.

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