Blueberries are one of the easiest fruits to plant and maintain. In many gardens, that’s a good thing, because fussy plants tend to get ignored. Blueberries don’t have thorns, don’t spread out of control, and don’t take up a lot of space. Blueberries require little in the way of ongoing work, once you have taken care of their soil requirements. And with doctors now saying that blueberries surpass all other fruits for their health benefits, you may want to find a spot in your yard for a few blueberry bushes.
Growing blueberries in the South is easier than growing them in colder climates. There are no hard freezes to worry about and the season is long and hot, just the way the blueberries like it.
There are three types of blueberry bushes and where you live will dictate which type is right for you. Lowbush blueberries are the typical wild blueberries that you find throughout the forests of the east coast. Lowbush varieties are not often cultivated for the home garden. Highbush blueberries grow well in the Northern states as they can handle more cold and frost and attain a height of 5-6 feet. Rabbiteye blueberries can take more heat than the other varieties and are planted extensively in the Southern states. Rabbiteye blueberry bushes can reach 10 or more feet in height. Although Rabbiteye blueberries are self-fertile, to get the best yields, plant two or three varieties to establish cross-pollination. If you can’t find blueberry bushes in your local nursery, there are many online vendors you can purchase from. Get two year old plants if possible to hasten the production of blueberries.
The initial planting of your blueberry bushes takes forethought and planning. Once established, your blueberry bushes will take off on their own. To get the best blueberry yields, plant your bushes in the sunniest location you can give them and one that is protected from late spring frosts. Blueberries require an acidic soil with a pH of 4.5 to 4.8. This is more acidic than most soils are naturally, although in the southern states, anywhere that azaleas and camellias thrive is likely to be naturally acidic. Home soil test kits are widely available at nurseries and you should test the pH of your soil prior to planting. If your soil is too “sweet” (has a high pH), acidify it with ground sulfur or with a pre-packaged soil amendment such as Mir-Acid.
Digging plenty of peat moss into your soil will also help to acidify the soil and will give you the added benefit of providing organic material. Add compost to your prepared soil to give your blueberries a head start but stay away from manures as they are too high in nitrogen. Once your soil tests within the correct range, you are ready to plant. Space your blueberry bushes at least four feet from each other. This spacing will result in a hedge-like appearance when mature. You can also space farther apart. If growing Rabbiteye blueberries, make sure that the varieties you plant have overlapping bloom periods. For example, plant an early variety beside a mid-season variety beside a late variety. If you plant only an early variety and a late-season variety, you will not get any cross-pollination as they are not blooming at the same time. Plant blueberry bushes at the same soil level as they were in the pot. Firm the soil around the plants with your foot and water thoroughly. Apply a pine straw or wood chip mulch around blueberry plants to help retain moisture and discourage weeds.
Once your Southern blueberry bushes are established, there are few ongoing maintenance requirements. Test your soil at least annually to make sure that the pH is maintaining in the correct zone. When the bushes have been producing for five years, you can prune some of the older growth to open up the bushes. Your major challenge with blueberry bushes will be keeping the birds away. There are two routes to go: you can net your blueberry bushes to stop birds from eating the berries or you can share the berries with the birds. If you have planted an extra bush or two, there will be plenty of blueberries for you and your feathered friends. Blueberries are not susceptible to many pests or diseases and are therefore well-suited to organic growing.
Blueberries are ripe in 5-6 days after they turn from green to blue. Hold your hand under each clump and “tickle” the clump gently. The ripe berries will fall easily into your hand. Keep the bushes well-picked to encourage further berry development. Blueberries are easy to freeze. Do not wash the blueberries before freezing or they will turn to mush. Freeze dry berries in plastic bags. They will not clump together and you can pull out exactly how many you need for winter pies, muffins, or smoothies. Give them a quick rinse when ready to use. One great tip about using blueberries (or any small fruit) in muffins is to toss them in a small amount of flour before adding to the batter. This prevents them from settling to the bottom of the muffin.
Growing blueberries in the South is rewarding and will save you significantly over buying imported half pints in the grocery store.