Blueberries for the Panhandle
Have you tasted the great local blueberries available this season? Want to start your own Blueberry garden? Now that Blueberry harvest is in full swing in the Florida Panhandle, it is a good time to discuss blueberry culture.
Blueberry plants in garden centers lure us in with bell shaped flowers or especially if already setting fruit. Before you take one home, make sure your site is suitable. Doing your homework before you plant is important, but especially so when you want to grow a plant with specific cultural requirements such as blueberries. Blueberries require well-drained acidic soil that contains organic matter, a minimum of 4-5 hours of sunlight daily, and space away from competing roots. Chill hour requirements and bloom time vary by blueberry types.
Soil in the Florida Panhandle has a wide pH range (measure of acidity) and can vary greatly even within a half-acre site. Having your soil tested prior to planting is critical to growing blueberries successfully because it is very difficult to lower pH if your soil is higher than the target range. Blueberries need acidic soil (pH 4.2-5.5) to be able to use micro-elements in the soil such as iron and zinc. As the pH increases, these nutrients become less available to the plant even if they are present in the soil in adequate quantities. Nutrient deficiency leads to weak plants and loss of vigor. Plan to test your soil before you purchase plants to ensure your site has the ideal pH range, visit your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office to obtain a soil test kit. For more details about how soil pH affects your landscape, please see EDIS SL256: Soil pH and the Home Landscape or Garden.
Sandy soils commonly found in North Florida tend to be low in organic matter. Incorporating soil amendments directly into planting beds or using mulches that decompose (such as pinestraw or wood mulch) will help increase organic matter in your landscape. Peat moss or pine bark can be incorporated into beds planned for blueberries or pine bark can be used as mulch. Adding organic matter will help retain soil moisture, which is beneficial to blueberries that have shallow root systems.
Retaining soil moisture is valuable to blueberries, however, the site does need to drain well to a minimum depth of 18 inches. Areas that remain wet for long periods of time increase the risk of Phytophthora root rot damage. If an otherwise ideal site does not drain well, consider building a raised bed or changing the location.
Four to five hours a day is the minimum sunlight needed for good blueberry production. Make sure your sunny site is at least 20 feet from building foundations and competing tree roots. Blueberry plants can get large, over ten feet in height and width! Plan to give them room to grow; with pruning they can be maintained around 7’x7’.
There are two main types of blueberries that grow well in Florida: the southern highbush and rabbiteye. Among those types, there are specific cultivars with low chill requirements that perform better in Florida than in other southern states. Rabbiteye blueberries are recommended for areas north of Ocala, southern highbush for central and south Florida. When choosing cultivars, you need to plant at least two different cultivars within the same type (rabbiteye with rabbiteye) and make sure that bloom time overlaps so that cross pollination can take place.
Rabbiteye cultivars recommended for the Panhandle are:
Mid- to late-season
For more information about blueberry site preparation, selection, pest management, and care please see EDIS CIR1192 Blueberry Gardener’s Guide.