My Bilberry Saga

clairecathyApril 17, 2011

Last fall I received 3 bilberry bushes (very small) from Hartmann's and transplanted them to pots. One died within a couple of weeks, the second in a couple of months, and the third has lasted until this spring with green branches, but no signs yet of budding leaves or flowers.

Two weeks ago, I was sent two replacement bushes. Both looked great, with leaves and flowers, but within two weeks only one is thriving and the other is dead.

On Friday, a second order of 3 bushes (made before I realized I was going to lose one of the replacements) brought plants again with leaves and flowers, but one was already browning and the other two look a bit iffy.

Last fall I had no idea of what to do, so the losses were likely due to my own ineptitude, but this spring I think I was doing the right things: using Al's gritty mix, white vinegar in the water to keep it acid, and pine needles as a mulch. The weather here in so. Calif. has been cool to hot but my balcony is rather sheltered, so there have been no extremes.

The plants arrived in a very dark soil surrounded by what seemed to be walls of the same soil, only harder, more like cardboard. They were also root-bound, so I had to soak them for a while and it was very difficult to remove the hardened soil. In some cases, I couldn't remove all the soil because the roots were so delicate and the soil so enmeshed.

These plants had a 4-5 day shipment to me via UPS.

1. I've given above all the relevant info I can think of. Can anyone here tell me what may be causing my terrible success rate? I know bilberries are temperamental, but still . . .

2. Would I be better off starting from seeds?

3. Since I have, for now anyway, one vibrant little bush, should I try to get cuttings from it? (Or would another season be better?)

I want bilberries for medical reasons, so please don't suggest just going to blueberries.


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flora_uk(SW UK 8/9)

clairecathy - bilberries, if you mean Vaccinium myrtillus, are highly specialised to grow in the wild in poor acidic soils in cool, even cold, wet climates. So it is not surprising they are not happy on a balcony in California. They don't even grow in southern England except on acidic high ground and heathland. The 'dark soil' is probably high in peat if not pure peat. I can only suggest keeping them as cold as you can and making sure they never dry out whilst not letting them stand in water. A tall order. Also the yield from a bush is pretty small. They are time-consuming and fiddly to pick any quantity. Sorry not to be more positive but I think you are trying to grow a plant which is just not suited to your conditions.

    Bookmark   April 17, 2011 at 4:36PM
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Thanks for the help. I am using a very fast-draining soil, and watering often with no fertilizer, so it seems my big "bad" was setting them where they could get sun for a couple of hours in the morning. (Some articles actually recommended sun!) I have a sheet-shield drop from the railing I use for winter nights of frost and I will put it up to keep them out of the sun.


    Bookmark   April 17, 2011 at 4:52PM
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flora_uk(SW UK 8/9)

Claire - in the wild they do grow out in the open in full sun rather than in shade. But the sun in the Highlands of Scotland is nothing like as strong as you would get where you live. It's more a question of sunLIGHT than sunHEAT.

    Bookmark   April 18, 2011 at 5:03AM
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Thanks for explaining this further. It makes me think that the exposure to sun may have little to do with my current problems: I live close to the ocean, where it is cooler than inland, and there are cooling breezes. Also the sunlight (for just a couple of hours in the morning given the facing and construction of my balcony)is broken up by a slated railing.

However, we sometimes get Santa Ana winds here -- very hot and dry from the desert -- so I'm glad to have this info for the future -- when I could take the plants inside.

I do understand the odds are against me, but I've already invested time, work and money in these plants and since I have the one plant that looks happy, I want to see if I can't do the next-to-impossible. :)

If you, or anyone else on the list, can answer my question about possible cuttings, I'd appreciate it.


    Bookmark   April 18, 2011 at 10:12AM
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Bilberry would be sensitive to soil & water pH, much like blueberry shrubs. I would begin by learning how to test the tap water you are using on these plants for pH. When you have that accomplished, the next step is to take a soil sample, and test for pH. However, bear in mind that it is quite possible that when you have succeeded in growing healthy green bilberry plants, you might not be able get them to flower in the spring, because there is not enough chilling weather in your area. Some shrubs and trees that are adapted to northern climate will grow very well in warmer locations, but they fail to flower and produce fruit.

    Bookmark   April 18, 2011 at 10:59AM
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The plant that is doing very well is doing very well in terms of leaves. It does seem to be losing its flowers, so maybe you're right about the hopelessness of bearing fruit here. I will continue for a while to nurse all of these plants just in case a miracle ensues, but am not going to invest further effort and money in pH assessments. I did at the start add gypsum to the soil preparation and the non-chlorinated water I use does have white vinegar in it,so that will have to do for acidity.

Thanks for your comments -- though they sadden me.


    Bookmark   April 18, 2011 at 11:19AM
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I'm wondering now about Hartmann's. My correspondence with them began last fall when I ordered the original three bushes, and they were very good about sending out two replacements free-of-charge this spring. But why, in all the emails that went back and forth, would they not mention the question of my location?


    Bookmark   April 18, 2011 at 11:24AM
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jean001a(Portland OR 7b)

Some gardeners like to push the envelope. It's not the seller's duty to point that out to you.

    Bookmark   April 18, 2011 at 11:44PM
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Okay, I can understand that -- when the order is first given. But in the ensuing, lengthy correspondence, I made very clear what a novice I was and how confused I was by all the failures. It would have seemed reasonable at some point for them to question the location.

Anyway, I've been doing more research and am still hopeful that I can in fact "push the envelope" on this one. But the odds are clearly against me, so I'm not betting on it. I've been online and found the closest I can come to a bilberry for zone 10 -- which is not a bilberry but somewhat related and similar: the evergreen huckleberry. It seems to be happy in almost any soil and almost any amount of sun. :)


    Bookmark   April 19, 2011 at 10:17AM
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They also like high altitude, you often find them on top of mountains in poor soil, cold winters. Here we call them huckleberrys. You probably wouldn't want them to bear fruit the first year, let it spend energy building it's roots and branches. These bushes never look good in the wild so not sure if it is pretty enough to be a container plant. You might try southern blueberrys.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2011 at 12:54PM
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WebChemist(10A CA)

Hi Claire,

Just curious about any updates on the Bilberry survivors? I'm thinking of ordering some Bilberry myself and I live in Vista, so I'd be very interested to know how they are doing, if they ever fruited or even if they survived this long.


    Bookmark   March 11, 2014 at 11:58PM
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skyjs(z8 OR, USA)

I live in a very wet acidic soil area. I planted them in poor soil. They both died quickly. I figured not really worth it. Blueberries, pink huckleberries and evergreen huckleberries all grow pretty well around here. If I wanted to grow something hard, I'd grow something really great like purple mountain huckleberries.
John S

    Bookmark   March 12, 2014 at 12:56AM
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