Growing your own blueberries in the home garden
By A.J. Heinsz-Bailey
Why should you grow your own blueberries? Blueberry bushes have masses of white flowers in spring. In early summer, the bright blue fruits are delicious – and the plants have no thorns, making them easy to pick – and in the fall the foliage takes on striking blend of red hues.
A deciduous shrub for all seasons, blueberry plants are easy to grow and maintain. The rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium ashei syn V. virgatum) is a Louisiana native. Recognized for its outstanding qualities, rabbiteye blueberry was named a Louisiana Super Plant by LSU AgCenter in the fall of 2014.
The ideal time to transplant blueberry plants is during the dormant season, November through March. Blueberries grow best in full sun. The soil should be rich in organic materials with a pH of 4.5 to 5.5. Contact your local extension office for a soil test kit if you are not certain. Pine bark, leaves, peat moss, and compost are excellent materials that do not compact. Finely ground sulfur can be used to lower the soil pH if needed. It is a slow process taking six to eight months depending on the soil. The site should have good drainage and no standing water. Avoid planting them in spaces surrounded by trees. The root system is usually located in the top 8-10 inches of soil and is a weak competitor for water and nutrients. Space the plants 5-6 feet apart. Mulch the newly planted blueberry bushes with pine straw or compost to keep in moisture and keep out weeds. No need to fertilize at planting time. Two bushes per person should provide enough berries for eating and storing.
Success with establishing blueberries will depend on a routine watering schedule. The shallow root system allows the plants to dry out quickly. Regular watering is needed for fruit and root production especially in the fall when blueberries set next year’s flower buds. These buds will become next year’s fruit. Improper watering is a major cause of failure to succeed with blueberries. Keep the plants moist. They need between 1 and 13/4 inches of water per week during the growing season, either from hand watering or rainfall.
Blueberry plants have very few insect or disease problems. Pesticides are rarely needed in the home garden. Birds are the main pest. Have a scarecrow or two or five standing ready for duty. Maintain a 6-8 inch layer of mulch over the entire root system to prevent weed problems. The shallow root system should not be heavily cultivated. The resulting damage could stunt your bushes
It is important not to overfertilize blueberries. Do not put the fertilizer in piles around the plant base. Do not use nitrate forms of fertilizer or nitrate of soda. Ammonium sulfate is an effective nitrogen source. Blueberries also respond well to fertilizers containing urea and cottonseed meal. Azalea or camellia type fertilizers may also be used. Fertilizer is not needed during the first growing season. In second season fertilize after the plants leaf out and again if needed after harvesting the crop. A little fertilizer goes a long way with blueberries.
Rabbiteye blueberry bushes need a light pruning to encourage new growth. On young plants, remove only low branches that touch the ground. Prune the top to keep bushes at a reasonable height for harvesting. On old plants, thin out the canes to make harvesting easy. Prune the tall shoots and remove old wood too. The next season’s crop forms on wood produced in late summer and fall so pruning is done after fruit harvest. Plants reach mature size in eight to 10 years.
Rabbiteye blueberries begin to ripen in June. Once the berries begin to ripen, harvest every five to seven days. Select berries that are plump and firm with a light silvery color. This coating is a natural protective wax on the berries. Harvest only ripe blueberries since unripe berries do not become sweeter after they are picked. By planting several varieties, you can extend the harvest season over eight to nine weeks. Blueberries should be refrigerated immediately after harvest. Do not wash blueberries before storing because moisture allows mold to grow. Berries will keep for about two weeks in the refrigerator and two years in the freezer Blueberries taste great and are a great source of vitamins A, C, and E, as well as iron, and fiber.
Blueberries require cross-pollination, so variety selection is important. Two or more varieties are needed for adequate cross-pollination. Solitary bees, such as carpenter bees, are the most effective rabbiteye pollinators. Additionally, by selecting several varieties you can increase the length of your harvest season. Flowering usually occurs in late February to mid-March. The fruits however, mature over four to six weeks. Varieties are divided into three categories depending on when their fruit ripens. Early, mid, and late season varieties give the backyard enthusiast an extended harvest. All varieties do well, in our area so chilling requirements are generally not listed.
Southern highbush is a newer category of blueberry created by crossing northern highbush blueberry (V. ashei x corymbosum) with the rabbiteye blueberry. The resulting varieties have the late blooming date and shorter ripening period of the northern highbush and the low chill hours and adaptability to the humid Southern climate of the rabbiteye. They do require more care than the rabbiteye varieties.
Rabbiteye Varieties for Louisiana
Southern Highbush Varieties
Blueberry Do’s and Don’ts
• Don’t plant in the shade.
• Don’t plant too deep or in a wet area.
• Don’t fertilize at planting or use nitrate fertilizer.
• Do use lots of organic matter and mulch with pine straw.
• Do water regularly.
• Do plant more than one variety for cross-pollination.
A little attention will bring gallons of rewards!!!!