Rabbiteye blueberries, Vaccinium ashei, are best adapted to our area in Alabama and are native to the southeast United States. Blueberries are one of my favorite plants to grow because they are relatively low maintenance and produce in abundance with a minimal number of plants.
They make great options for edible ornamentals if you want to incorporate them into your home landscape.
The health benefits associated with blueberries are tough to beat. As they serve as a source of fiber, they also contain properties that lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and oxidative stress in the body. High oxidative stress levels lead to conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other gene mutations.
When planting blueberries, choose an area that is well draining. They prefer a low, acidic pH, ideally between 4.5 and 4.8; however, anywhere from 4.2 to 5.2 will be sufficient.
The best times to plant are during leaf drop in fall through early spring. Rabbiteye blueberries only require 300 to 600 chill hours depending on the variety. When making selections, plant more than one variety to provide cross-pollination, which will aid the plants in producing larger and full-flavored fruit.
For a continuous supply of berries throughout the fruiting season, choose multiple varieties with early, mid and late ripening dates. Typically, each variety will supply fruit for two to three weeks within a two-month period from late May to late July.
Early season varieties include Climax, Premier, Austin. Mid- to late-season varieties are Brightwell, Tifblue, Powderblue.
Blueberries grow best in soils that are high in organic matter. Increase the organic properties prior to planting by mixing one gallon of moist peat moss with the soil in the bottom of the planting hole. Water the plants after planting to settle the soil around the root system. Other sources of organic matter include aged pine, leaf mold and cover crops. It’s not recommended to use sawdust, hay or compost in place of the peat moss because it will stunt the plants.
After planting, mulch around the bush in a band of about 4 to 6 feet. If planted in a row, space the plants 6 feet apart or more and mulch the soil between each plant. Pine bark mulch is my top choice because it’s accessible, acidic and decomposes slowly. Mulch will help to regulate the soil temperature, hold in moisture, release nutrients and suppress weeds. It only needs to be re-applied every one to two years, depending on the level of breakdown and washout from water drainage.
Blueberry roots grow where the mulch and soil line meet, so keep an eye out for root exposure. Keep those roots covered up to avoid damage.
Though blueberries are low maintenance, they will do best if they are pruned annually. Pruning can be done from leaf drop in the fall to bud break in the spring. Regular pruning will help to develop established and vigorous plants that produce consistent crops of large berries.
- Remove any diseased or injured wood. A common problem is cane blight. It enters through wounds, causing dieback and spots on the canes. It is very important to sanitize pruning tools to prevent the spread of any disease from one plant to another. Remove any infected canes at ground level.
- Prune out any canes that have grown outside of the preferred radius. Any canes more than 1 foot away from the crown or center of the plant should be removed.
- “Raise the skirts” by cutting back any branches resting from ground level up to 1-1/2 feet. Those branches will hang even lower when they set fruit and would be more prone to bacteria splashing from the ground due to rain. Cut back the branch to a strong, young upright shoot, rather than cutting out the entire branch at ground level.
- Remove weak, brushy or twiggy wood, as well as crossing branches. This spindly wood is less productive and reduces light penetration throughout the plant. Stronger upright branches will set more fruit. Crossing branches will rub against each other and create wounds.
- Top the mature bushes around 6 feet, or as tall as you can personally reach, by cutting back to another branch or bud.
During harvest, take care not to wipe off the whitish bloom from the berries. This powdery coating is produced on the berries to help protect them from insects and bacteria. Keep your hands cupped under the berries and use thumbs to pop off the ripe berries. If the berries hang onto the plant, they aren’t fully ripe and can be left on the plant for another day or two. Don’t harvest the berries when they’re wet, as any water on the harvested berries will shorten the berry shelf life.
Take a trip out to some local plant nurseries today and pick out a few blueberry bushes that your family will enjoy for years to come.
I’d like to say how much I’ve enjoyed writing the Garden Talk column; however, it is time to share the gardening platform with some other talented local horticulturists. Though this will be my last article, I’d like to thank you for following along and hopefully gaining inspiration for your home garden along the way.
~ Sidney Hancock is a horticulturist who lives in the Lake Martin area. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @garden.and.gal.