Small Farm Blueberry Production for the Panhandle
In the Florida Panhandle, blueberry jam, blueberry cobbler and fresh blueberries seem to be a staple. This is because there are many local, u-pick, direct-market, and wholesale growers who provide a top quality product.
Farmers wanting to add blueberries to their operations sometimes struggle to find the varieties grown by other local farmers. Vaccinium ashei (commonly known as rabbit-eye blueberry) is a species of blueberry native to Florida and adapted to the late frosts we sometimes get in Northwest Florida during the months of February and March. It is recommended that this species of blueberry be grown in this area for fruit production, not its sister species the Southern Highbush, Vaccinium darrowii. There are several dwarf cultivars of Vaccinium darrowii that can be used to great effect in the landscape, but will not produce a noticeable crop of fruit most years.
The rabbit-eye blueberry is a deciduous shrub growing to 3 to 6 feet tall and with up to a 3 foot spread. The leaves start out red-bronze and turn dark-green when fully developed. It has small, white bell-shaped flowers. It produces 5 mm diameter fruit, dark blue to black, with a pale gray wax coating.
Rabbet-eyes are self-infertile, meaning that they must have two or more varieties to pollinate each other. Therefore it is advisable to plant two or more variety cultivars close together to ensure complete fruit set. Recommended cultivars for our area include, ‘Brightwell’,’ Climax’, ‘Beckyblue’, ‘Tif-Blue’, Powderblue, ‘Woodard’, ‘Chaucer’ and ‘Bluegem’. Old, local plants can be found in gardens and in the woods, due to the fact that Works Projects Administration (WPA) workers planted them under pines in the 1930s. These can easily be propagated by cuttings or by nicking and burying a lax, or low growing stem under soil for a few months. Once the stem forms roots, it can be severed from the mother plant and transplanted.
Blueberries grow best on acid soil at a pH of 4.0 to 5.2. Few pests and diseases bother them, with the exception of scale, whitefly and mealybug. These are controlled with a combination of dormant oil sprays, and insecticidal soap.
Blueberries enjoy soil rich in organic matter and benefit from liberal applications of pine bark mulch. Their roots are fairly weak and should not be planted near turf or other weeds, which may out-compete them in the race for water and nutrients. Mulching eliminates this grass and weed competition. In soil where organic matter is very low, such as in high-elevation sandy areas, farmers should grow blueberries in 2 foot deep trenches filled with rotting pine bark. Blueberries enjoy being spoon fed fertilizer, since heavy fertilizer doses stop fruit set and may damage fragile root systems.
When planting, it is advisable not to include fertilizer in the planting hole. “Blueberry Special” fertilizer mixes are available which are made up of ammoniacal or urea based nitrogen sources, with an analysis of 12-4-8 and 2% magnesium. This mixture is available at many local feed and garden stores. New plants should get one ounce per application in April, June, August and October. Two year old plants should receive 2 ounces per application and older plants should receive 3 ounces per application. Fertilizer should be spread in a circle 2-4 feet in diameter around the plant for optimal root uptake. It does no good to just pour the fertilizer at the plant’s base, since feeder roots are further out from the plant.
Adapted from the Blueberry Gardener’s Guide Publication #CIR1192
Feel free to contact your local UF / IFAS County Extension Service or the author for more information about blueberry cultivation.