Blueberries in the Home Garden

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Blueberries can be grown in home gardens anywhere in North Carolina if the right species and proper soil modifications are used. Blueberries are typically used in the landscape as hedges for screening purposes, but they can also be used in cluster plantings, or as single specimen plants. Blueberries are an ideal year-round addition to the landscape. 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. In addition, blueberry plants lend themselves to the organic approach of gardening, since pesticides are rarely needed in home garden plantings.

A picture of a bunch of blueberries
The best type of blueberries to grow in the North Carolina Piedmont are Rabbiteye varieties, which are better adapted to clay soils than the southern highbush types grown on commercial blueberry farms in the coastal plain. Rabbiteye blueberries grow into large bushes, usually 6’+ tall and wide, but are capable of growing 12’ tall or more if they are not regularly pruned. Yearly pruning must be done to maintain fruit set each year. Pruning is done in late January through February and should be completed by March. Blueberries are most productive in full sun, but will produce a decent crop even when grown in part shade. Blueberries ripen from June through August so each bush will provide several harvests. When harvesting Rabbiteye blueberries keep in mind berries turn blue well before they fully ripen. For sweeter fruit, wait seven to ten days after berries turn blue to pick. When buying Rabbiteye blueberry plants be sure to purchase at least two different named varieties; Rabbiteye blueberries cannot pollinate themselves – they must have another variety growing close by to produce fruit. Recommended Rabbiteye cultivars include Climax & Premier (ripen mid-late June), Columbus & Onslow (mid-season bearers), and Powderblue (ripen late July through August).

The best time to plant blueberries is in January and February. Blueberries require a lower pH than many other small fruit crops. Many Piedmont soils are acidic and soil pH’s around 5.0 are typical. The pH of soils that have been recently limed or where wood ashes have been frequently applied may be higher than ideal for blueberries. Before planting, take a soil test. Your local Extension office has information and materials to take a sample. If your soil pH is above 5.5 you will need to lower the pH by applying wettable sulfur to the soil. Your Extension office can assist you with this process. Applying too much sulfur can be detrimental to plant growth.
In addition to pH, you will also need to assess drainage. Blueberries grow best in well-drained soil that has plenty of organic matter. If you have heavy clay soil or poor drainage, amend the soil by mixing in finely ground pine bark, which is sold as soil conditioner. Do not use freshly mulched wood chips. This will rob the soil of needed nitrogen. Build raised mounds 6” to 12” high and 2’-3’ wide to improve drainage. Space plants 5’- 6’ apart in the row. Keep plants well-watered, especially during the first few years as they establish. Mulch will help retain soil moisture and reduce weeds – pine straw and pine bark mulches are ideal.

For more information on blueberries and other topics please contact N.C. Cooperative Extension of Franklin County at 919-496-3344 or Colby Griffin at colby_griffin@ncsu.edu.