Growing Blueberries in Montana

by Jan Cashman

Since I was a child, I have been around blueberries.  When I was growing up in eastern Minnesota, my mother, sister and I picked wild blueberries in the area’s woods. (We were always watching for bears, who liked the blueberries, too.)  I didn’t mind the work of picking them, because I ate more than I put into the bucket.  When we were attending the University of Minnesota, one of my husband, Jerry’s professors, Cecil Stushnoff, was researching wild blueberries to cross them with highbush varieties.  I helped Dr. Stushnoff find local berry patches near my parent’s home.  (Locals were reluctant to divulge the location of their secret blueberry patches.)  Then, when my sister had a summer place in Maine, Jerry and I would go there in early August to pick blueberries, freeze them, and bring plenty home for pies; Jerry makes a wonderful wild blueberry pie.

Blueberries, genus Vaccinium, are native to North America.   Two species are commonly grown—lowbush, often called ‘wild’, grows to 1 or 2 feet, and highbush, reaches 4 to 6 feet.  The berries of highbush varieties have bigger berries, ½” or more in diameter.  Besides, Maine, which produces wild blueberries, Michigan, for highbush blueberries, and Canada, which exports both high and lowbush, they are now cultivated in Europe and South America.   Because they are usually more winter-hardy, we grow lowbush varieties here.  What we, in Montana, call native huckleberries are really blueberries.  Bilberries, which are similar in size and taste to blueberries and in the same genus, are native to Europe.

Blueberries make an attractive landscape plant with their brilliant red leaves in the fall which often stay evergreen through the winter.  The fruit is extremely nutritious.  Along with vitamins A and C, they contain antioxidants which have a role in reducing the risk of some diseases.

Blueberries are not easy to grow in Montana, but, it can be done if care is taken to amend the soil and protect them.  John Austin from the Gallatin Gardener’s Club has been growing blueberries successfully in containers.  We planted two new plants in our raised garden beds last spring—they have done well so far, even producing a few berries to eat last summer.

Because blueberries are native where the soils are acidic (pH 4.5 to 5.5), it helps to grow them in containers where the soil mix can be controlled.   Blueberries have a shallow root system, so they don’t need a huge container—John Austin has his in half whiskey barrels.   Around here, our soils tend to have a higher pH, so add peat moss and sulphur to lower the pH.   And, make sure there is plenty of organic matter in your soil mix.   Good drainage is important, wherever you plant them.  John uses plenty of elemental sulphur to bring his soil’s pH down to around 5.5 to 6.   Use a fertilizer recommended for acid loving plants.

Blueberries grow wild as an understory plant, which means they grow under shade trees in their natural environment of the woods or forest.  They may not thrive under our hot sun in this part of Montana; partial shade would be better.  John Austin protects his containers in the winter, since the roots are above ground level.

The University of Minnesota has introduced a number of hybrids of lowbush blueberries that are good producers.  Many of the hardiest varieties contain the word “North” in the name—Northblue, Northcountry, Northland, and Northsky.    ‘St. Cloud’ and ‘Chippewa’ are hardy introductions that ripen early and produce heavily but need a pollinator of another blueberry cultivar.  Plant two different varieties for the best pollination.

To get them off to the best start, plant blueberries in the spring when they are available as either bare root plants or in small containers.  Prepare your soil now so you’re ready to plant and look forward to harvesting this delicious, nutritious fruit.