By Mary Beth Shaddix
Blueberries are one of the easiest, healthiest fruits to grow. You don’t need acres of land and a lot of know-how. We’ve taken the guesswork out of growing your own blueberries in the South. Here are a handful of fun facts to have you picking by summer:
Made for the South
The two varieties in our DownHome Harvest™ Southern Living Edibles Collection are the sweetest picks for Southerners. Bless Your Heart™ and Takes the Cake™ are both rabbiteye selections developed by the University of Georgia horticulturists who know our soil, seasons and climate. They are prized for ideal size (4-5’ h x 3-4’ w), flavor, and productivity.
What’s a Rabbiteye?
Different from low-bush cultivars seen in Maine, or highbush varieties that perform well in Northern regions, rabbiteye blueberries are native in the Southeastern states and have been cultivated into cherished plants for the home gardener. Some say Vaccinium ashei gets its nickname from the pinkish look of the immature fruits, much like a rabbit’s eye.
It Takes Two to Tango
Plant several of both selections to yield more fruit. For cross-pollination, blueberries need to be planted with another variety that blooms at the same time. We’ve done the pairing for you. Bless Your Heart™ and Takes the Cake™ are two varieties which, when planted together, make more bountiful harvests. To keep the picking party going well into summer, add later-blooming, late harvest varieties such as ‘Tifblue’ and ‘Powderblue.’
The Big Chill
As with many fruiting plants, the date a blueberry shrub will burst into spring bloom is triggered by how many hours of cold temperatures it experienced over winter. Chill hours are usually calculated as the amount of hours below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. For instance, our blueberry selections are chosen for a mid-range chill hour requirement of 500-550 hours, which correlate to good production throughout USDA Zones 7-9. This characteristic prevents Takes the Cake™ and Bless Your Heart™ from blooming too early, risking damage from a surprise spring freeze. Avoid Jack Frost and his disappointing habit to “nip it in the bud.”
The Bees Needs
What type of bees and insects pollinate these bell-shaped blooms? We know that pollination is critical for our successful harvests and hear a lot about helping the hardworking honeybee. But did you know there are hundreds of native bees and insect species that help create each juicy blueberry? The tiny flower is a difficult shape to pollinate, thus native species like the Southern blueberry bee are especially talented at vibrating to loosen pollen and get the job done. Better pollination equals bigger berries. Interestingly, some bee species take a shortcut. Carpenter bees slit a hole in the top of the flower to steal nectar, leaving an easy entrance for others to feed without the necessary distribution of interior pollen.
Healthy plants and future harvests begin beneath your feet. Soil texture, nutrients and pH are all critical to a plant’s vigor. For blueberries, acidic soil (between 4.0 – 5.5 pH) is ideal, much like our beloved Southern azaleas and pines. Simple pH tests are easily found in garden centers, or collect a soil sample for your state’s local Extension office to test. If needed, these lab results will recommend an application of finely ground sulfur to lower pH and create ideal acidity. Mulching under blueberries with pine straw is a common sight in the South – a smart tactic because the needles retain moisture, prevent weeds and add a slight acidity to topsoil. And it’s a prevalent – often free – resource. Another Southern resource in abundance, clay, is not ideal for planting. Blueberries perform best in soils with high levels of organic matter that drain well.
Since blueberries thrive in spaces where azaleas and rhododendrons grow, it’s easy to remember that fertilizers labeled for them would also work well for Takes the Cake™ and Bless Your Heart™ berry plants. Blueberries require fertilizers with an ammonium form of nitrogen such as urea, sulfur-coated urea, ammonium sulfate, or cottonseed meal. For optimum performance, apply three times a year: when spring growth emerges, after bloom, and again, after harvest. To learn more about rates and how to apply, read further details about fertilizing blueberries.