Selecting a Growing Site for Huckleberries
Strive to match your planting site with species that are adapted to the climate and elevation at that location. For example, while V. deliciosum and V. membranaceum are native to mountain sites, they have been grown near sea level in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Flower and fruit production at sea level sites has tended, however, to be sporadic. Likewise, V. ovatum is native to warm, coastal climates and may not perform well at high elevations or on colder sites.
Vaccinium membranaceum, V. caespitosum, V. myrtillus,, and, V. scoparium are often productive in lightly to moderately shaded areas that have more available soil moisture than adjacent, drier sites. On moist sites, however, colonies in full sun will often be the most productive. Vaccinium ovalifolium is nearly always found in partial shade, while V. parvifolium tolerates somewhat more sun than the other species mentioned in this paragraph. Irrigation may allow you to raise these species in full sun. North- and east-facing slopes are generally preferable to south- and west-facing sites. In excessive shade, however, yields decrease and the amount of sugar deposited in the berries decreases. Huckleberries grown under shade cloth that screens out 50% of sunlight produce berries, but the fruit is usually sour. These six species are typically found on well drained, acidic, sandy loam soils formed from volcanic ash and that hold moisture well. Distinct layers of volcanic ash in the soil are often found associated with these species. Typical bulk densities of native soils are 0.6 to 0.8. Soils on productive wild sites often contain large amounts of rotted wood and surface layers of forest duff. In research field trials at the University of Idaho, V. membranaceum and V. ovalifolium did not survive well on poorly-drained, silt-loam soils. On sites with heavier soils, plant on raised beds approximately 6 to 12 inches high and 12 to 18 inches wide to improve soil drainage.
Vaccinium deliciosum and V. ulignosum are usually found on moist, organic-rich soils alongside ponds, streams, or dry lake bottoms. The soils are consistently moist, but not waterlogged or submerged. These species often grow in full sun, although they can also be found alongside heavily shaded streams and drainages. On drier, upland sites, V. deliciosum can be found growing with V. membranaceum in sandy-loam soils on north-facing slopes or under partial shade.
Huckleberries respond favorably to large amounts of soil organic matter (30% or more), and often root in rotted stumps and logs. To simulate naturally-occurring organic materials, consider amending your soil with peat moss, sawdust, bark, compost, and other organic materials. All of the species discussed here grow well in peat moss-based potting soil. Regardless of the site, provide irrigation. No huckleberries tolerate drought.
Huckleberries are acid-loving plants. The optimum soil pH appears to be about 4.0 to 5.5 (7.0 is neutral). In a few cases, V. membranaceum has been found on sites with pH values near 7.0. If your soil pH lies between 5.5 and 7.0, consider acidifying the soil before planting by applying agricultural sulfur and regularly fertilizing with an acidifying fertilizer, such as ammonium sulfate. For sites where the pH is 7.0 or above, commercial huckleberry production will be difficult or impossible.
Huckleberry species do not appear to tolerate extremely cold winter temperatures without snow cover. They should be grown where there is consistently one to two feet of snow, where winter temperatures are moderate, or where the plants can be protected when the temperatures drop to 0o F or below.
Avoid planting in a frost pocket. Huckleberries bloom in early spring and the blossoms are susceptible to frost damage. The wood and mature leaves are quite frost tolerant in the spring, although the tips of new shoots can easily be killed by frost. On potentially frosty sites, be prepared to provide frost protection during bloom when temperatures fall below 28o F.
Pest control is a consideration when establishing a huckleberry planting. Huckleberries are prime deer, moose, and elk browse, and you may need a fence to protect your plants.
This fact sheet is contributed by Dr. Danny L. Barney. Dr. Barney is a Professor of Horticulture and Extension Horticulturist specializing in small fruit and ornamental crops, and serves as Superintendent of the University of Idaho Sandpoint Research & Extension Center.