Blueberries in the Home Garden
Blueberries are a wonderful addition to landscapes and gardens. They have delicate white or pink flowers in the spring, the summer fruit has an attractive sky blue color, and the fall foliage adds great red and yellow colors to the landscape. With the right species and proper soil modifications, blueberries can be grown anywhere in North Carolina.
The rabbiteye types of blueberries are more drought and heat resistant, and will tolerate a wider range of soil types than highbush blueberries. Therefore, in our area I always recommend planting rabbiteye blueberries. Rabbiteye varieties begin to ripen in mid-June and you can even plant varieties that you can harvest into late August. More than one rabbiteye must be planted to provide the cross-pollination required for maximum yields. The following are recommended varieties for our area: ‘Climax’, ‘Premier’, ‘Tifblue’, ‘Powderblue’, ‘Onslow’, ‘Columbus’, and ‘Ira.’
When planting it is recommended to incorporate well decayed or aged pine bark to increase the organic matter content and help improve drainage. Apply 3-4 inches of the pine bark in a band 18-24 inches wide and incorporate thoroughly using a roto-tiller to a depth of 8-10 inches. Preparing the beds in the fall will allow planting earlier in the season (late February to late March).
Before planting you will need to do a soil test. Cooperative Extension has the boxes for you to submit samples. The soil sample will help you determine what the soil pH is and what nutrient additions may be needed. Soil pH will determine the how successful your blueberries will be. Rabbiteye blueberries prefer a soil pH of 5.3. We are fortunate because most of our soils have a low pH to start with. If you do need to lower your soil pH apply 2.0 pounds of elemental sulfur per 100 square feet to decrease the soil pH from 6.3 to 5.3. You will need to apply the sulfur at least 4-6 months before planting and it is recommended to take another soil sample to see if additional sulfur is needed.
Full sun is desirable when planting, but a minimum of 50% shade is acceptable. Do keep in mind that your yield will be reduced in the shade. On most soils, irrigation is absolutely essential the year of planting. Hand watering with a hose is possible for several bushes, however, a soaker hose will provide uniform wetting. Apply irrigation no more than once every two days to reduce the chances of root rot infection.
When planting do not fertilize immediately, wait until the first leaves have reached full size, then apply 1 tablespoon of a complete fertilizer (10-10-10). During the second year double the first year’s rate and when fruiting begins the third year apply 1 cup of complete fertilizer in the spring.
Pruning new plantings is very difficult for most people to do. Blueberries respond better when planting if you prune approximately 2/3 of the top growth on bare-root plants and ½ on potted plants. It is also recommended to leave only 3-4 of the most vigorous upright shoots. Remove any remaining flower buds (plump rounded buds), so that the plants will not flower the first year.
After the planting is established you will want to apply 2-3 inches of an organic mulch such as aged-pine bark. The mulch will aid in more uniform soil moisture, reduced soil temperature and it promotes better root development for bush survival.
The fruit of your labor is the best part about blueberries. With good care, mature rabbiteyes will produce between 10-15 pounds of blueberries. One important point to keep in mind is that rabbiteye flavor improves if the berries are picked about every 6-8 days allowing for maximum flavor.
Did you know? Blueberries are a valuable crop for North Carolina. They are the top-ranked fruit crop, and they are the 16th ranked commodity overall for the state. In 2008, a state record of 28.5 million pounds of production yielded a value of roughly $50 million. That level of production places N.C. fifth nationwide for blueberries.
Blueberries are high in dietary fiber, niacin and vitamins A and C. They also contain antioxidants and flavonoids, all are important for good health and prevention of disease. It is hard to believe that something this delicious is so good for you. One-half cup of blueberries contains only 40 calories, so eat up!
For more information about blueberries, or if you have other gardening questions, feel free to contact the Franklin County Cooperative Extension Office at 919-496-3344, or visit our website at franklin.ces.ncsu.edu.