During the plant show I attended this past week at the University of South Florida Botanical Garden, I had the opportunity to discuss at length the culture and growth habits of blueberries with Ken and Patsy Frier of Berry Blue Farms and Nursery, LLC., located in Plant City. Having the growers available to answer questions about their products is invaluable in learning the tricks to establishing the plants you are interested in growing. Being a local grower also means they are growing under the same conditions that we will run into in our own gardens. Combine both of these attributes with the fact that they had brought berry samples to taste from their plants; well this was a winning situation to learn about growing blueberries. After sampling many of the different blueberries Ken had to offer, he gave me some helpful hints and tricks that I want to share with you this week. This article will go over these tips, and will include the proper planting techniques and growing habits of blueberries. We will also discuss the varieties you need to grow in our area.
If this is your first time growing blueberries than there are a few things you need to do up front. If you plan on growing in containers than you may only need to select some nice looking plants, a fifteen gallon container, and a quality well drained potting soil. However, if you are planting in the ground then site selection and soil modification must be your first call of action. Pick out a sunny spot in the garden that gets afternoon sunlight or at least six hours of light per day. For most gardeners that are just starting out I would suggest at least three blueberry plants (3 gallon sized from a local nursery) spaced about two to three feet apart or an area that is approximately eight feet long.
The next thing you need to do is to remove the soil from the area you are going to be planting your new blueberries. I like to remove the existing “soil” to a depth at least eight to twelve inches deep and twelve to fourteen inches wide. The purpose of removing this soil is because blueberries need to grow in soil that has a pH of 4.0-to 5.0. Our native soils have a pH in the area of 6.5 to 7.5 and at this level your blueberries will not grow and thrive, but will eventually die. The soil you remove from this area can be used to fill in low spots in the yard or in other areas of the garden. Now you need to fill in the areas you excavated with either a good quality potting soil or compost you may already have. The key here is to be sure you start off with a good base for your new plants to thrive. Blueberries planted in potting soil which is sterilized and free of weed seeds will enable the plants to get off to a good start much faster than using our native soils.
Now that the garden is ready for planting it is time to pick out your blueberries. You need to make sure the plants you select are of the low chill varieties which will produce blueberries in our area. Many of the big box stores carry varieties of blueberries that will not produce in this area because they do not get enough chilling time to set fruit. Look for varieties of blueberries that state chilling requirements of less than three hundred hours. Those that require more than three hundred hours of chilling time will not set fruit and although they grow a nice plant, most of us want the fruit. Some of the recommended Southern Highbush varieties are the Jewel, Emerald, Santa Fe, Star, Windsor, and Springwide. If possible select at least two varieties to ensure a good cross pollination. My favorites are the Emerald and the Jewel. Just a quick note, I was at a Lowes nursery last week and they carried the Emerald variety in three gallon containers. I do not know where they were grown but they are a variety I like. Beware of other varieties not listed here.
Once you have your plants you need to set them in the ground. Normally I will plant mine about an inch higher than they were in the pot. This is important as blueberries do not like wet feet so be sure to plant your plants on a little mound for good drainage. Be sure to remove any and all air pockets around the roots by sliding a watering hose down around the plant and working soil into any air gaps. Air gaps cause roots to die and if you water-settle your plants properly, they will have a better chance of growing and producing fruit more quickly. A thick layer of mulch or sweet peet added around the plants will help keep the soil moist and will also aid in keeping weeds from growing around your plants.
Once the plants are in the ground be sure to fertilize your plants once a month with about a half a cup of a good quality 8-10-10 or Osmacote slow release fertilizer. You do not have to fertilizer after October 1st as most plants will have dropped their leaves in preparation for blooming. On or about December 15th you may resume your fertilization in preparation for leaf flush. Remember, young or immature plants may take two years to produce fruit so if you started with small plants or you have them growing in pots, do not be worried about not getting any flowers or fruit in January or February. This is why I suggest you start with at least three gallon plant material. If you did you will notice your blooms in early January and fruit will form soon after. Depending on the varieties of blueberries you have chosen, mature fruit will continue to be produced through June. Pick ripe fruit when blueberries are plump and firm. Depending on whether or not you are going to eat them right away, they can be frozen and thawed when needed. Be sure to protect your plants from birds by using netting to discourage them. There is nothing worse than having a large crop of fruit one day and none the next. Plan ahead!
Pruning your plants should be done after harvest ends in June. Mature plants should reach a height of four and a half to five feet. Blueberries need to be pruned back each year to promote new growth which the berries will form on next year. Prune the plant back by one third or about one foot in height. Be sure to prune in the morning hours and make sure the plant is well hydrated the night before to avoid sunscald. Weak or damaged limbs should always be removed at this time of year. Keep an eye out for growth that shoots straight up and does not branch. This growth should be cut in half to encourage branching. Most growers prefer to box cut their plants rather than pyramid cutting.
Few problems are found on well maintained plants that you will have to worry about. Some fungal problems have been reported on plants that are over watered or have improper drainage. If you are growing in pots be sure to not let your plants dry out as they can die quickly if this happens. Those of you whom would like to purchase plants grown in this area that will do much better in your landscape visit Ken and Patsy Frier at their Nursery Berry Blue Farms 2903 Highway 60 West in Plant City, FL 33567 or check them out online at www.berrybluefarms.com.
Thanks for your time and remember, without plants we would not be here!