Blueberries in the Home Garden

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Blueberries are among the major fruit crops of North Carolina, which produces nearly 40 million pounds of blueberries worth $58 million annually. Our area is home to several superb ‘you-pick’ blueberry farms that are a great way to get fresh, locally grown blueberries. These farms provide opportunities to develop relationships with local farmers, and are good excuse to get your kids outside and learn about agriculture.

Blueberries make an attractive addition to the home garden and can serve as a foundation in an edible landscape design. In addition to their copious production of fruit (which attracts an assortment of native wildlife beyond the common juvenile bipedal primates), blueberry shrubs produce appealing red and yellow foliage in autumn,  and small, pinkish-white flowers in the spring that attract honey bees, bumble bees, and southeastern blueberry bees.

Growing blueberries is relatively easy compared to many fruit trees, provided they are established properly and pruned regularly. Soil acidity is the most important consideration when growing blueberries. Acidity effects the ability of plant roots to intake certain nutrients. Most edible and ornamental plants prefer slightly acidic soils (pH 6-6.5), but blueberries (along with rhododendrons and azaleas) are adapted to taking up nutrients in soils 10-100 times more acidic (pH 4-5.3). Fortunately, most of the soils in our area are already naturally acidic. A lab-analyzed soil test (provided for free by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services from April-November every year) is the only way to reliably determine soil pH and nutrient content. If the soil is not acidic enough, certain formulations of sulfur and peat moss can be added to lower pH, but must be re-applied regularly. Naturally acidic soils that have not been recently limed are ideal.

Blueberries prefer well-drained soils, so avoid heavy clay soils or low lying areas prone to standing water. Planting in raised mounds or ridges in heavier soils can help ensure better drainage. One to two inches of water (by rain or irrigation) are needed per week for a healthy crop; soaker hoses or drip irrigation systems are recommended. Maximum fruit yields are achieved in full sun, but blueberry shrubs will survive in partial shade.

The first two years after planting should strongly favor vegetative growth. While flowers (and thus fruit) will be produced early on, it is best to rub off or cut back flowers during the first two years to promote a vigorous root and shoot system. While eating blueberries the first few seasons may be tempting, resisting temptation will pay off in healthier and more productive bushes in subsequent years. Annual pruning in February involves removing weak and older canes, favoring a few large canes, thinning out the center of the bush, and cutting back overly vigorous canes. Older bushes can be cut back severely to reduce the size and reinvigorate the plant. Don’t be too shy about pruning, these bushes really want to grow!

So-called “rabbit-eye” varieties are most appropriate for our area. ‘Climax’ and ‘Premier’ produce fruit earliest in the season, typically harvested from mid-June to mid-July. ‘Columbus’, ‘Tifblue’ and ‘Ira’ are harvested in July, while ‘Powderblue’ is ready from about mid-July to mid-August. A mix of varieties provides better fruit set and fruit over more of the growing season.

Blueberries have relatively few pest and disease problems, especially compared to tree fruit like peaches, so fungicides and insecticides are rarely needed. However, a new pest called spotted-wing drosophila (Drosophila suzukii), a type of fruit fly that lays eggs in several berry crops, could be an increasing challenge for blueberry growers in the future. NC State University researchers are actively involved in developing management strategies for this potential threat.

For more information on planting and pruning blueberries for both farmers and home gardeners, visit the NC State University Blueberry portal.

North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County is offering a Blueberry Production and Pruning Workshop on Saturday, February 9, 2019, from 1-3 p.m. Please contact the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Lee County Center at 919-775-5624 to register for this free workshop and the location of the event.

Matt Jones is the Horticulture Agent at North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Chatham County.