On Gardening: Healthy, low-maintenance blueberries are a Southern garden staple
Feb 08, 2014 | 6145 views |  0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Over the past 10 years I have noticed blueberry plants becoming more readily available in almost every nursery I frequent, which is a good thing considering that the amount of blueberry and other fruit crops continues to rise among home gardeners. This may have to do with the attention the blueberry has received for its health benefits.

Considered a superfood, blueberries contain a high level of anthocyanin, antioxidants prevent free-radical damage within our cells. According to the LSU AgCenter, blueberries also have anti-cancer, anti-neurodegenerative and anti-inflammatory properties. Of course, all that’s an added bonus as their taste has already made most of us blueberry believers.

As if the health benefits aren’t enough, as many home gardeners know, blueberries are one of the easiest fruit crops to grow in Alabama. The rabbiteye blueberry, common among homeowners because of its ease of care, is a true Southern native that grows well throughout the South.

For the most part, blueberries are self-incompatible, meaning cross pollination is essential for harvestable yields. When planting two different types of rabbiteye blueberries, make sure the flowering times overlap to ensure pollination. By selecting several varieties, you can spread out the length of your harvest time. Blueberries do not ripen all at once. Berries of one variety may mature over a 4- to 6-week period.

For optimal yields, blueberries need to be planted in optimum conditions. Select a well-drained site high in organic matter. Blueberries will not tolerate heavy soils. For many, this means planting in raised beds or elevated planting sites. Unlike other fruiting plants, blueberries need an acidic soil with a pH between 4.5 to 5.2. Blueberries grow well in our area when pine bark media or peat moss has been added to the raised growing beds. Remember not to plant the rootball too deeply. Blueberry plants should not be planted any deeper than they were upon purchase. In fact I routinely plant them about 2 or so inches shallower to keep the shrubs elevated. Water is essential for fruiting plants so it’s a good idea to provide blueberries with irrigation.

Most blueberries that do not survive were loved too much. Applying too much fertilizer is more of a problem than applying none. Do not use nitrate forms of fertilizer for blueberries as this will cause root damage. A blueberry’s fertilizer needs are very similar to that of azaleas. Organic fertilizers such as cottonseed meal can be used as can synthetic slow-release fertilizer with sulfur-coated urea. A soil test is the best way to determine fertilizer needs.

Let’s not forget about the aesthetic value of blueberry shrubs. Blueberries are perfect plants for the landscape providing four seasons of interest. In the early spring, the small white, bell-shaped flowers hang in clusters on the plant. After pollination, the flowers are followed by the tiny pink to red berries that ripen to the blue-black color with which we are all familiar. After harvest and into fall, the leaves display a grand red color that may rival some of our woodland trees. And if that weren’t enough, the deciduous shrub loses its leaves in the fall and leaves behind a colorful, exfoliating bark.

Blueberries require less pruning than most fruits routinely grown in back yards. Planting blueberries this year? Remove about one-third of the plant’s height. Selectively prune any branches that cross back towards the center of the plant to let sunlight into the canopy.

If you had dreams of harvesting the berries the first year, try and put those dreams on hold. Remove fruit buds the first year of planting — plant will use the nutrients and water to grow healthier shoots and roots as opposed to fruit. Prune only to maintain shape until the plants are a mature age. Maintain new growth on plants two years and older by removing any lower, prostrate growing branches and any weak, diseased or damaged wood before plants begin to grow in the spring. You may also need to prune each year after harvest. For example, you can prune about one-third of the length of tall shoots so that they can support the fruit produced next year. Mature plants (8-10 years old) require renewal pruning to stay healthy and productive — remove some of the old canes each year so they can be replaced with new growth. Severe renewal pruning, which reduces the height of plants to 5 feet or less, should only be done every few years and right after harvest, no later than July, so the plant will put on new growth to host the blueberry buds for the following year.

Some of the most popular rabbiteye blueberries available in nurseries today:
Early season — Alpaha, Climax, Brightwell, Montgomery, Prince
Mid to late season — Tifblue, Powderblue, Onslow, Yadkin
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