Blueberries are Easy to Grow
Guest Article for the Tallahassee Democrat
May 29, 2015
By Brandy Cowley-Gilbert
Of all the fruits we can grow here in the southeast, blueberries are probably the easiest to get started. Native to our area, blueberries are dependable fruiters and long lived plants. They fruit early in their lives, so provide a quick return on your efforts. The bushes are rarely bothered by pests and disease, making them a good choice for people wanting to grow their fruit organically. Growing your own insures a succulent sweet harvest that only comes from picking fruit ripened on the bush, something you’ll rarely find on the grocery shelf.
Blueberries are a natural for incorporating into edible landscapes. These durable, low-maintenance shrubs have a unique, misty blue cast and are truly beautiful in all seasons. In spring, dainty, bell-like white blooms cover reddish canes. Flowers are followed by blue-tinged foliage and huge clusters of powder blue fruit. In autumn they make a brilliant show as they turn from orange to scarlet to fiery red. Mixing blueberries into your landscape is easy. If you’re a gardener who grows mainly flowers, you may not have thought of it, but blueberry bushes take no more room than a typical azalea or rose bush and are less work than either. They can be grown in half-barrels on a balcony or patio. They make an excellent hedging plant, beautiful in all seasons.
Here in North Florida we are fortunate to be sandwiched between two major blueberry breeding Universities. The University of Florida is world renowned for their efforts in breeding rabbiteye and southern highbush blueberries suited for low chill regions, Springhigh is an excellent early ripening variety for our area and Sweetcrisp is one of the first of a new class of sweet, crunchy blueberries that do well here.. The University of Georgia continuously cranks out some of the best flavored and most well adapted berries for our region. Look for Georgia’s new releases Titan and Krewer. Both these varieties are known for their quarter size fruit. Other varieties that are exceptional are Ochlockonee and Vernon, these two varieties tend to bloom late to escape the late freezes. The array of varieties that grow well in our climate is amazing. With careful selection of six to eight plants it is possible to have ripe fruit from early May though late July. If you’d like to store some in the freezer to enjoy all winter pick one of the many berries that have been bred for commercial production and have a concentrated ripening season and super heavy production, like Brightwell, Powderblue or Tiftblue. Here’s a link to a great IFAS publication that delves into the varieties suited for our climate http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg359
Blueberry Growing Guide
- Blueberries need a sunny location, and acidic, free draining fertile soil. Avoid water logged and heavy clay soils. If faced with these conditions plant in a raised bed above ground or grow your plants in containers.
- If planting a hedge, space plants four to six feet apart. For maximum root growth make a 3 foot wide bed where you want the hedge row to be, and till in two to three inches of peat moss, rotted leaves, or ground pine bark into the soil.
- Plant two different varieties together to insure cross pollination. Each group requires a pollinator from within that group—you must plant at least two varieties of rabbiteye or two varieties of southern highbush.
- Peat moss is the best amendment to plant your bushes with. Mushroom compost has a very high pH and can kill your new plants.
- Young plants have a tendency to over-produce, limiting the plants growth and establishment. It’s really best to remove all the fruit the first year.
- Water well through dry periods to ensure the fruit sets well. Plants are easily lost to drought the first years. Apply a heavy mulch of leaves or pine bark to insure a cool moist place for the roots to thrive.
- Only use acid type fertilizers. Fertilizers for use on azalea or camellia are good choices.
- As plants age, thin out ¼ of the oldest canes each year. This will insure a good production of new canes that will fruit heavily.
- If birds are a problem cover with bird netting before the berries turn color.
- Blueberries are ideal for growing in containers. For best production plant in at least a twenty inch container and use a potting soil that contains peat and ground bark.
Blueberries are a good first step into the world of growing your own fruit. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to become a pro at growing them. With a little success who knows what’s next, on your fruit growing horizon, apples, pears or maybe even peaches. Growing your own food is a wonderful and very rewarding hobby.
Brandy Cowley-Gilbert is co owner of Just Fruits and Exotics Nursery and a volunteer writer for Leon County UF/ IFAS Extension. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov