By Ellen Barcel
One of the nice things about gardening on Long Island is our very acidic soil. Did I say that was one of the nice things? Yes, actually, if you are fond of certain fruits.
Soil pH measures how acidic or alkaline your soil is. The scale ranges from 0 to 14 with 7 being neutral. Below 7 is considered acidic with 4.5 to 5 being very strongly acidic. Much of mine tests out in this range. Above 7 is alkaline. How acidic or alkaline soil is determines how certain needed nutrients are taken up by different plants.
If your soil is very acidic, in the 4.5 to 5.5 range, then blueberries top the list. Blueberries are tasty and considered a nutrition powerhouse filled with phytonutrients and high in fiber. Blueberry bushes come in a number of varieties including high bush (tall) and low bush (shorter). The white spring flowers give way to the berries in summer. To prolong the picking season, select several varieties that range in maturity date from early to medium to late. Yes, consider netting as the berries begin to ripen since birds do love them, too.
In addition to the wonderful fruit they yield, the plants make a great living hedge. Since blueberry bushes are deciduous, the living hedge does not provide much screening in winter.
Bilberry and cranberry also do well in this very acidic range, 4.5 to 5. Cranberries were once raised commercially on Long Island. Cranberry Bog Preserve in Riverhead is located where this commercial operation was in business from the late 1890s to the 1930s. Local women were employed to harvest the berries. If you decide to try to raise cranberries, remember that lots of water is needed.
Other fruits that do well in acidic soil include rhubarb (5.5 to 6), raspberries (5.5 to 6.2), wineberries, which are an invasive variety of raspberries from Asia, and strawberries (5.5 to 6.5).
A plant that may need some lime is the grape vine. While it does well in a variety of soil conditions, the ideal soil pH is 5.5 to 6.8, lower for American vines, higher for some of the imports. If you soil is below the 5.5, then add lime. Different varieties of grapes do better in different soil pH levels, so read the tag that comes with your plants or do a bit a research on the specific variety you have selected. Like most of the fruits mentioned above, grapes prefer a well-drained soil.
When it comes to fruit trees, the apple does very well in acidic soil, growing well even down to 5.0, which is considered strongly acidic. Dwarf and semidwarf varieties mean that the home gardener can grow one or more even on a small piece of property and can easily harvest the fruit come fall.
Peaches do well in pH 6.5 (slightly acidic). If your soil is very acidic, you may need to add some lime. Two trees that “volunteered” in my yard are filled with beautiful pink flowers, which is why I keep the trees since the peaches themselves aren’t really great.
Another tree that yields fruit and does well on Long Island is the mulberry, pH range 5.5 to 6.5, moderately acidic. There are some negatives to the mulberry tree, however. It’s a “messy” tree in that the fruit and juice can easily stain anything with which they come in contact. And large limbs can easily break off from the tree. So, while it easily grows here, think about the negatives versus the positives before planting it.
All in all, many different varieties of fruit do well here in Long Island’s acidic soil. Remember to add fertilizer to you soil. Yes, compost is ideal, but if you prefer chemical fertilizers, read the package carefully to make sure it is formulated to help the fruits you are growing. Always follow manufacturer’s directions.
Also remember, that if you do need to add lime, depending on the variety it can take over a year or more for the lime to break down in the soil and be available for your plants to use. Again, read the package carefully.
So plant your favorite fruit tree or bush, sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.