Blueberries can be grown in home gardens and are typically used in the landscape as hedges, mass plantings or as single specimen plants. Blueberries are an ideal year-round addition to the landscape. They have delicate white or pink flowers in the spring. The summer fruit has an attractive sky-blue color, and the fall foliage adds red and yellow colors to the landscape.
Blueberries require a lower pH than many other small fruit crops. Before planting, take a soil test to determine lime, sulfur and fertilizer needs. You may also need to incorporate 3-4 inches of compost.
Blueberry plants require excellent soil drainage. Full sun is desirable, but up to 50% shade is usually acceptable. Yield is reduced with increasing shade.
Rabbiteye (V. ashei) types of blueberries can be grown best in our area. The rabbiteye is resistant to drought and heat and will tolerate a wider range of soil types. Rabbiteye varieties begin to bear in mid-June. More than one rabbiteye variety must be planted to provide the cross-pollination required for maximum yields. The following varieties are in order of ripening from early to late that are successful for home gardeners: Climax, Premier, Tifblue, Powderblue and Centurion highbush.
To plant, purchase 2- or 3-year-old nursery plants, 12-36 inches tall, in late winter (February and March). Plant rabbiteye varieties every 6 feet in the row and 10 to 12 feet between rows. Plant to the same depth as the plants were growing in the nursery.
Prune about two-thirds of the top growth on bare-root plants and half on potted plants, leaving only one to three of the most vigorous upright shoots. Remove any remaining flower buds (plump rounded buds), so that the plants will not flower the first year. Do not fertilize immediately after planting. Wait until the first leaves have reached full size, then apply 1 tablespoon of a special azalea fertilizer, 12-12-12 or 10-10-10, within a circle 1 foot from the plants. Repeat application of fertilizer at six-week intervals depending upon rainfall or irrigation until mid-August. Mulch plants with bark, wood chips, sawdust or pine straw, 3-4 inches.
If the plants are cut back severely as recommended following planting, little pruning will be required the second year except removing all flower buds and any weak, damaged or diseased growth. Use a similar pruning strategy the third year with the exception that several flower buds can be left on vigorous shoots.
In the fourth year, the bush should be 4-5 feet tall and capable of handling a crop, but carefully thin flower buds to prevent over-fruiting and severe permanent bending of young canes under the fruit weight.
When bushes are mature, remove old canes that are weak, diseased or damaged. Cut back tall, vigorous shoots to force branching at a lower level and to control bush height and thin fruiting shoots to reduce the number of flower buds by about 50%.
Excessively tall and limber shoots will need cutting back to stimulate branching and strengthen the shoot. With mature bushes that are excessively vigorous, cutting back the excessively vigorous shoots in late July will help control bush height and increase yield. Remove suckers (shoots developing a distance from the crown). Prune during the dormant season.
For more information on blueberries see the N.C. State University website (search “blueberries”) or contact the Wilson County Master Gardener volunteers at 252-237-0113 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cyndi Lauderdale is a horticulture extension agent for the N.C. Cooperative Extension.
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