Growing Huge Red Huckleberries At Home
Updated May 10, 2004
Every once in a while on the edge of the woods you find a lush red huckleberry bush covered with berries the size of large blueberries instead of the tiny berries that are so common. It is so amazing that they get this big without anybody making any effort to cultivate them. There is nothing like the lively and flowery flavor of these berries, and the joy of finding a bush covered with them in the early summer sunshine.
Unfortunately many people think it isnít feasible to grow plump red huckleberries at home. By clearly understanding the nature of where red huckleberries grow best, it is possible to intentionally create similar environments to grow them in.
Besides the beautiful and delicious red berries that add color in the early summer, the leaves on the red huckleberry bush are light yellow in the fall. After the leaves fall off, then you can see an intricate outline of branches that are particularly beautiful with ice or snow on them. As spring approaches the bright red buds on the bright green branches add more color to your yard.
Red huckleberry bushes make a wonderful addition to many different styles of yards.
Where They Grow Best in the Wild
In short, red huckleberries grow best on top of tall wide stumps of coniferous trees. Stumps in the full sunlight, that are at least 30 inches across, and a at least 4 feet high, usually have lush red huckleberries growing on them that produce many large berries. The bushes grow okay in shade, but for a thick crop of incredible berries, you need full sunshine from sunrise to sunset.
Red huckleberries are found throughout lowland Puget Sound, and they were a staple food for the Indians. That sounds great, fresh smoked salmon with a fresh salad of wild greens and red huckleberries. Actually most of it got mashed up into pemmican, dried, and stored for winter when there wasnít much to eat, and it is cold, dark, and rains all the time.
The red huckleberry can put out a foot of new growth a year, but it takes several years of root development before this can happen. In the wild, the higher sumps keep them above the quick growing shrubs and weeds and in the full sunlight. When in your yard, so as long as you make sure they get enough sunlight, they donít need to be high off the ground.
The Nature of the Stump
There are two critical aspects to the nature of the stump as far as red huckleberries are concerned. The first is that the stump is a huge sponge. Rotten wood can absorb several times its own weight in water. A stump extending many feet above the ground, and with large roots extending many feet below ground, can easily absorb every drop of the 40 inches of rain a year that hits its top and sides. The bark on the lower sides of the stump and roots helps seal in the water and prevent evaporation.
In the larger stumps most of this water wonít ever evaporate. This sponge of rotten wood provides a large reservoir of water for the red huckleberry, and carries it through the 3-5 semi-arid summer months the Puget Sound area frequently gets. This is how the red huckleberry survives dry summers even thought it isnít drought hardy.
The other critical aspect of the stump is the red huckleberry needs a very acid environment and a rich source of conifer wood based nutrients. Rotting conifer wood provides the perfect fertilizer and growing medium for red huckleberries. Their roots follow the rotting tree roots for great distances. These rotten wet buried roots provide nutrient saturated water for the red huckleberries even in the middle of a summer drought.
You might see a red huckleberry on a large stump of a hardwood tree, but it wonít be as big or lush as the ones growing on a conifer stump. They really need the chemical makeup of rotting conifer wood. Probably rotting Douglas fir wood makes the best medium for red huckleberries.
This tendency of red huckleberry roots to follow the roots of the rotting tree also explains why itís hard to transplant red huckleberries from the wild. It just isnít feasible to dig up 20 feet of a few roots for a 3 foot tall bush. When digging up a wild red huckleberry you frequently end up with 6 branches 3 feet long, and 2 roots 2 feet long, and no root ball. To prevent the bush from drying up and dying the first summer, you would have to cut off almost all the side branches on the red huckleberry, and water it almost constantly. Avoiding this is the big advantage of nursery raised red huckleberries.
Creating the Huckleberry Mound
Before creating a place to grow red huckleberries, there is one more consideration of stump dynamics to be factored in. The top of the stump is never saturated with water. This means the crown and upper roots of the red huckleberry get to breathe year round. However much of their root tips down deep in the rotten roots are in a saturated airless environment for much of the year. This means that the red huckleberry needs to be planted on a spot that is always hilled up some, probably at least a foot high after the ground settles, so the upper roots always get lots of air.
Conifer sawdust, preferably aged (but this isnít necessary), with a bit of soil mixed in, makes an ideal planting medium for red huckleberries.
For a long time as stumps start to rot, they mostly shrink sideways, so the plants growing on top stay at the same elevation. Sawdust on the other hand can loose half its volume in a few years, and 80% of its original volume in about 10 years. This needs to be taken into account when creating a red huckleberry mound.
You need to start out with enough height so that the huckleberry is still above ground where it can get lots of air in 10 years time. The best way to do this is to mix all of the dirt dug out of the ground with the sawdust so that even when the sawdust is almost completely rotted, there is enough bulk of soil to keep the root crown above the surface of the ground. Due to the lack of oxygen, the sawdust at the bottom of the hole will rot much slower than the sawdust above the surface of the ground, so this will delay the settling of the mound.
Planning the Hole and Soil Mix
As you are working on the red huckleberry mound, just keep remembering that you are creating an artificial stump to recreate the natural environment for the red huckleberry. The closer the mound is in function to a real stump, the better the red huckleberry will grow.
The deeper you dig the hole, the better the sawdust at the bottom will do at holding water and nutrients for the red huckleberry. The sawdust above the surface will dry out much quicker because of being exposed to airflow and being much more porous than the original stump.
Basically the bigger you dig the hole, the bigger the huckleberry bush will grow. Think of a huckleberry bush on a stump 4 feet wide and 8 feet high. Iíve seen red huckleberry trunks several inches across on stumps like this. The hole should be at least 2 feet wide at the bottom, about a foot wider at the top, and at least 3 feet deep. The hole needs to be wider at top to provide a wider base for the mound above the surface and so the mix settles more evenly as the sawdust rots.
A combination of sawdust, bark dust, and bark chips is like a natural time release fertilizer, and a three stage sponge. The conifer bark takes much longer to rot than the sawdust, and a while longer than the bark dust. Until it rots some, it wonít hold much water, and wonít release many nutrients. This will delay the settling of the mound, and provide water absorbing ability and nutrients after the sawdust has mostly rotted.
A good mix for the red huckleberry mound would be:
You might get about 20% settling in the first year. If you used garden edging to help keep the mound in place, after it settles and bonds into a solid lump, you will end up with steep sides on the mound. Without the edging, the loose soil mix tends to spread out. As long as there is 2 feet or so of rise to the mound, it doesnít matter how high the mound is, as long as there is a large mass of sawdust, bark, and dirt for the huckleberry to grow on. The edging would be to just help keep the mound contained in more cramped plantings. Starting out with 2 feet of rise helps insure that there will still be a foot of rise after the sawdust has mostly rotted.
Adding Compatible Plants to the Huckleberry Mound
You might consider letting the pile spread out a bit because this will quickly become very similar to the duff on the Northwest forest floor. It would be an ideal place to plant native flowering herbaceous plants that normally grow on the forest floor. The red huckleberry would provide partial shade for these plants like they are used to during the summer. And these forest floor plants would get fuller sun in the early spring, before the red huckleberry leafs out, like they are used to in the deciduous areas of the woods.
The First Few Years
Remember, red huckleberries arenít drought tolerant, they just found a niche where they can avoid the summer drought. Until the roots have penetrated the damp cool bottom part of the hole, they will need regular watering. Unless you have dug a really generous hole, and brought in a lot of sawdust and bark to mix with the dirt, they will always need occasionally watering during extended dry periods. Be sure to soak them long enough to saturate the whole mound all the way to the bottom. When sawdust completely dries out, it sheds water extremely well and it takes a long time for water to penetrate it.
When building the red huckleberry mound, remember the bigger the hole and the more sawdust you add, the less often it will need watering in the future, and the bigger and juicier your berries will be without any additional effort at all.
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