Blueberries – the Perfect Pick!
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Written by: Charlotte Glen, Horticulture Agent
Finding locally grown, farm fresh blueberries is an easy task in our area, considering Pender County is the second highest blueberry producing county in the state. But did you know blueberries are relatively easy to grow in most home gardens? In fact, blueberries are one of the easiest fruits to grow organically, making them the perfect pick for many backyards. To start your blueberry patch all you need to know is how to prepare your site and which are the best varieties for our area.
Blueberry Varieties for Home Gardens
In our area the best type of blueberries to grow in home gardens are rabbiteye varieties, which are more adaptable and tougher than the highbush types grown on most commercial blueberry farms. Rabbiteye blueberries grow into large bushes, usually 6’ to 8’ tall and wide, but are capable of growing 15’ tall if left unpruned. They are most productive in full sun, but will produce a decent crop even when grown in part shade as long as they receive at least four hours of sunlight each day. Their berries ripen from June through August in flushes, so each bush will provide several harvests.
When buying rabbiteye blueberry bushes be sure to purchase at least two different named varieties, and preferably three, because rabbiteye blueberries cannot pollinate themselves – they must have another variety growing close by to produce fruit. Some reliable varieties for our area include ‘Climax’ and ‘Premier’, our two earliest bearers, ripening in mid June; ‘Columbus’ and ‘Onslow,’, which are mid season bearers; and ‘Powderblue’, which ripens late in the season, usually from July through early August. Fully grown blueberry bushes are very productive, producing up to 24 pounds of fruit per bush. In most cases six to eight bushes will provide a family of four all the berries they can eat, though you may want to plant a couple of extra bushes for the birds.
Choosing the Right Site
Growing rabbiteye blueberry bushes successfully depends on choosing a location with the right type of soil. Blueberries require acidic soil to grow well, preferring a soil pH of 4.0 to 5.5. This is lower than many plants will tolerate, even camellias and azaleas. To find out your soil’s pH, submit a soil sample to your local Cooperative Extension office for free testing. Samples are sent to the NC Department of Agriculture’s soil testing lab in Raleigh. The results, which are much more accurate than do it yourself kits, are posted online, usually within three to six weeks. If your soil test results show your soil pH is over 5.5, you will need to lower the pH by applying sulfur to the soil. If this is necessary, contact your local Extension agent to find out how much you need to add.
Besides pH, you must also take into consideration drainage. Blueberries need a well drained soil that has plenty of organic matter. Sandy soils that have been amended with peat moss and compost are usually ideal for growing blueberries. In sites with heavier soils or poor drainage, the soil should be amended with compost and finely ground pine bark and shaped into raised mounds to improve drainage. Mulch will help maintain soil moisture, but avoid using hardwood mulch around blueberries because they can raise soil pH over time. Pine straw and pine bark mulches are ideal. Keep plants well watered, especially during the first few years as they are getting established.
Find out more about growing blueberries and celebrate this wonderful fruit by attending the NC Blueberry Festival, coming up June 16th on the courthouse square in Burgaw. Visit Extension Master Gardeners at the education tent to get answers to your gardening questions, buy fresh blueberries from local farms, and enjoy live music and lots of tasty blueberry treats! Visit http://www.ncblueberryfestival.com/ to find out more. To find local farms where you can pick or buy fresh blueberries, visit the NC Farm Fresh website at http://www.ncfarmfresh.com/.
If you have questions about growing blueberries or other fruits and vegetables, contact your local Cooperative Extension office. If you live in Pender County, call 259-1235. In New Hanover County, call 798-7660. In Brunswick County call 253-2610, or visit https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/ where you can post your questions to be answered via the ‘Ask an Expert’ widget.