Growing blueberries in the home garden

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By MARION BARNES

jbrns@clemson.edu

Fresh blueberries are one of summer times special treats. They are excellent in pies, cobblers, muffins, pancakes, as toppings on breakfast cereals or just eaten plain as a snack. Blueberries are becoming increasingly popular with home gardeners due to their delicious and healthy fruit. Besides being high in antioxidants they are thought to have anti-aging properties, improve vision, help fight heart disease and other health aspects.

Blueberries are in the heath or ericaceae family, a large group of flowering plants found most commonly in acid or infertile growing conditions. There are three main types of blueberries grown in the Southeast: rabbiteye, Southern highbush and Northern highbush.

Blueberries in the home garden seldom need spraying for insects and disease.

Rabbiteye blueberries are tolerant of the heat and drought of the South and tolerate a wider range of soil types, thus making them the best choice for home gardeners in the Lowcountry.

One of the most important growing requirements of blueberries is their need for self-pollination. A minimum of at least two varieties are required for adequate cross pollination for maximum fruit production. Selecting varieties with different ripening dates will ensure an extended harvest season.

When selecting blueberry varieties, be aware of chill hour requirements. This means that blueberry plants need to be exposed to a significant number of hours of winter temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit in order to produce flowers. Chill hours in South Carolina range from 1000-1200 hours in the upstate to as low as 400-600 hours near the coast.

Blueberries are acid-loving plants and require a soil pH lower than many other fruit crops. Before planting, take a soil sample. If the pH is above 6.0 consider selecting another site, if possible. For soils with pHs below 6.0, an application of wettable sulfur (90% sulfur) will be needed to lower the soil pH to the range for proper growth. An extremely low soil pH can cause excess sulfur to become toxic to the plant. Sulfur applications should be made at least three months prior to planting in order to adjust the soil pH level. Refer to a sulfur application chart (found in many blueberry production publications) for exact amounts for your specific soil pH.

Take another soil test prior to planting and check the soil pH once or twice during the first growing season to determine if additional sulfur applications are warranted.

Blueberries require soils with good drainage, so consulting a soils map or observing the soil profile may be helpful in predicting internal drainage. Poorly drained soils are conducive to disease problems. Raised beds can also help with drainage issues.

Since blueberries are naturally adapted to high organic matter soils, it may be necessary to incorporate organic materials into the soil before planting. In most soil types and most seasons, irrigation is necessary for establishing and maintaining blueberries. Adequate moisture, particularly during fruit production, is necessary for producing juicy, plump fruit and ensuring adequate plant and bud development for next season’s crop.

When it comes to fertilization, use caution since blueberries are extremely sensitive to over-fertilization. Refer to soil test recommendations since fertilization requirements differ depending on the age and growth stage of the plants. To avoid damage to root systems, blueberries should not receive fertilizer at planting or after planting until growth begins and leaves have reached full size. In subsequent years, soil and tissue tests should be used to determine fertility needs.

Since blueberries are shallow rooted plants, adding mulch to the surface after planting results in more uniform soil moisture, moderates soil temperatures, and generally promotes better growth and survival.

Without some form of control, birds can do extensive damage to blueberry crops, especially small plantings. Noise-making devices offer mixed results and are not an option in urban/ suburban areas. Cloth or plastic netting supported by framework seems to be the most practical solution.

If you are considering planting and growing blueberries in your home garden, check out the Clemson Extension Blueberry Fact Sheet HGIC 1401 on the Clemson Home Garden Information Center website.

Information for this article was taken in part from the following sources: Clemson HGIC Blueberry Fact Sheet 1401, Blueberry Production in the Home Garden FSA6104, University of Arkansas Extension Service by M.E. Garcia, Assistant Professor of Horticulture, and Blueberry Production in the Home Garden, by C. Mainland, Extension Horticulture Specialist and B. Cline, Entomology and Pathology, North Carolina State University Extension Service.

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