In the early days of the new year, gardeners everywhere dream of new projects. You might be thinking about growing your own antioxidant-rich blueberries, a project that requires advance planning. Site selection and a soil test are essential first steps along with weed control. Blueberry bushes do not compete well with weeds.
Though somewhat shade tolerant, blueberries need full sun to produce fruit. Their roots are very sensitive to waterlogged soil. An elevated site would have better drainage as well as better air circulation. They also require acid soil with a pH of 4.5 to 5.2. Get a soil test kit from your county Extension office. This test will tell you about the site’s pH as well as nitrogen and phosphorous levels.
Most soils will require an application of sulfur to reduce the pH. The soil test results give the gardener the information needed to know how much sulfur to apply. It takes about six months for the sulfur to change the pH of the soil. In the course of one treatment, do not expect to lower pH by more than one point.
It is also important to incorporate organic matter into the soil. Composted pine bark and peat acidify soil but may reduce drainage. For this reason raised beds can be a best option for blueberries.
Blueberries are native to our region. There are two types, rabbiteye, or Vaccinium ashei, and highbush, Vaccinium corymbosum. The highbush varieties are attractive to deer and birds and produce less fruit. Rabbiteye blueberries have almost no pest problems but are self-sterile, meaning that there must be two or three varieties planted together to ensure cross-pollination.
The bushes live 10 to 15 years but do not fruit for the first two years during which the plant becomes established. By the sixth year each bush will produce about two gallons of berries.
Blueberries are transplanted in late fall. Space rabbiteye bushes five to six feet apart in a row with 11 or 12 feet between rows. Prune twiggy growth and all flower buds, cutting the plants back by at least one third. Mulch with four to six inches of pine straw or pine bark. The majority of the root system lies at the interface of soil and mulch. Irrigate at the soil line when rainfall is less than an inch weekly.
Flower buds form near the tips of the branches in late summer and early fall. Prune them off the second year so that the shrub can use its energy for root and top growth. Repeat soil tests the second and third seasons to ensure soil pH is low enough. Until the bushes are about six feet tall they do not require much extra care beyond weeding, watering and maintaining mulch to the drip line.
University of Georgia Extension has a very detailed publication about growing blueberries at home. You can find it online at extension.uga.edu.
For the past two years sales of edible plants have surpassed those of ornamentals. Growing fruits and vegetables is a very satisfying hobby the whole family can enjoy.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home. Email your garden questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.