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Blueberries provide benefits to gardens beyond fruit (so don’t hate the birds)

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Picking a ripe blueberry off the bush is something of an art; the fruit develops its signal indigo color and powdery bloom well before the flavor catches up.

But look for the plumpest berry and give it a deft squeeze — firm enough to feel resistance, gentle enough not to damage — and you can find that one tasty orb at its best. Just pinch it between your beak and do that avian gargling thing, head back and eyes closed, and swallow it whole.

Or, if you’re human, just roll the berry until it detaches and chew with those weird teeth of yours. Don’t want to choke, and all that.

Some people resent cultivating blueberry bushes for the birds; I think it’s the only way. For the gardener, the blueberry bears fruit in other ways.

The bush is a twiggy but handsome native shrub, growing to chest height and four feet across. The leaf color is a classy blue-green, and the texture is neither too coarse nor too fine. If you give the plant what it needs, it stays beautiful. It prefers soil that is acidic and evenly moist but not constantly wet. The best way to achieve the correct environment is to amend the soil with organic matter and then mulch the plant lightly with finished compost or leaf mold once or twice a year.

Blueberry bushes don’t like high-nitrogen synthetic fertilizers. I add a bit of fish emulsion when watering the roots.

The fruit is the cherry on top, but other virtues make this an adorable woody plant in the garden. The April blossoms are lovely, creamy pendent bells that draw bumblebees, and in fall the foliage turns various shades of orange and red. Pruning the older and congested branches in the winter is a rewarding offseason job: You notice the redness of the youngest stems. In sum, the blueberry has all the multi-seasonal delight of, say, a fothergilla or a camellia. It is a plant for sun, though it will work in a lightly shaded bed.

I once had a lovely big blueberry bush that, in my ignorance, was placed in too wet a spot, and it died in time. Eager to protect the fruit, I wrapped the bush in plastic netting, and then noticed one day a catbird ensnared within it. Pegging the net to the soil and keeping it pegged is difficult. A bird will exploit any little gap. My brother netted his gooseberry patch, only to leave a space at the bottom. He found one bird inside the net dropping the loot to its partner on the ground. In my catbird’s case, I reached in and held the creature firmly without crushing it and undid the tangle around its leg. The bird was fine, but I haven’t netted a fruit bush since.

In a country garden, the nets often trap snakes, said Jon Traunfeld of the Maryland Home and Garden Information Center. If they are not freed with dispatch — not an enticing job — they writhe till they die. This is no way to treat a snake, which helps battle voles and mice.

Traunfeld notes that creatures besides birds go for blueberries, including rabbits and deer. Fencing is the only cure for those pests.

To ward off the birds, some gardeners build walk-in frames for their fruit bushes and strawberries, and then clad them in netting, including, of course, the top. They look awful, at best utilitarian. I saw one the other day that would pass for a pen for junkyard dogs. The raspberries within lost their appeal.

I think commercial growers avoid the birds by growing so many bushes and picking the ripe ones daily during harvest. For the home gardener, the trick in July is to be out there often (and watering deeply every few days) in gentle competition with the birds.

Blueberries become more productive when you plant different varieties. This spring, I converted two vegetable beds into a blueberry patch of 10 shrubs of three varieties. Tifblue and Premier are standard varieties of the rabbiteye, a southern species that is quite hardy in Washington. Blueray is a workhorse highbush type from the north, happy in the Mid-Atlantic if the soil work has been done and the gardener waters it deeply once a week in the heat of fruiting season. Don’t rely on overhead irrigation, which is one of the least precise ways of delivering water to vulnerable root systems.

Unlike, say, melons, which are made tastier by dryness as they ripen, blueberries need moisture for good fruit set and development. So get that watering can charged. Our feathered friends are waiting.

Follow @adrian_higgins on Twitter for more gardening advice.

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