Blueberries! (Jinx! You owe me a coke.)
Clear some space, dear gardener, ‘cause you’re going to want more than two of these. And not only for its juicy jewels. This is an all star plant we’re talking about, here. To glaze over its other fine features would be a crime.
Its punishment? A blueberry-less summer. *Gasp*
I mean, forget the berries for a minute. A difficult task considering its evidence is all over your fingers, lips and tongue. This plant’s spring foliage emerges the cleanest of greens, then matures to a sophisticated blueish-green. Come fall, vibrant reds and oranges are revealed, rivaling even the biggest of big shots on the fall scene.
Oh, and its flowers! They’re like......sweet little......bell-shaped.....and they dangle.....with blushed petioles.....Oh, I can’t find the words. Just look for yourself.
You see, even if it didn’t sport berries, the blueberry bush deserves a space in our gardens. But it does sport berries! Big, beautiful, vision-improving, fiber-rich, disease-reducing, energy-producing, delicious, sky-blue berries.
And lots of them! In fact, you can expect a healthy, six-year-old bush to produce two gallons of fruit in a season. Include varieties that ripen at different times, and your staggered harvest will be so abundant, some might actually make it into the house.
Choosing Your Blueberry Varieties
There are three types of blueberries grown in the state of Georgia: Southern Highbush, Rabbiteye and Northern Highbush. However, the Rabbiteye types, which are actually native to Georgia, are the most appropriate choice for home gardens in our North Georgia region. Reason being, Southern Highbush types bloom very early, making them dangerously susceptible to our late spring frosts. While Northern Highbush types require winters longer and colder than ours.
But within the Rabbiteye group are plenty of varieties to chose from. In fact, planting more than one variety is not an option. Rabbiteyes are essentially self-infertile and require cross-pollination for fruit to set. So, the more, the merrier!
To help determine which varieties you should begin with, ask around. Fellow gardeners, your local nursery and our County Extension Office are information hubs that are too often underused. Whichever varieties you choose, best leave room for future additions. New must-have varieties are being developed regularly as breeders try to one-up each other with improvements on the original.
Site Selection and Soil Preparation
Blueberries are ridiculously low-maintenance, considering all they provide. However, they make a couple requests that are non-negotiable.
Choose a site that receives full sun at least five hours a day in well-draining soil with a pH of 4.5-5.2. That’s acidic! And crucial. Take a proper soil sample to UGA’s extension office. For a small fee, they’ll not only be able to tell you the pH of your soil, but also instruct you how to lower its pH if it’s not quite acidic or well-draining enough. Lowering a soil’s pH takes time, so assess your soil well before you plant.
Wait, you just skimmed over that soil stuff didn’t you? All that pH mumbo-jumbo is just too much to consider and you’d rather just plop them in the ground and see what happens, right?
Listen, it’s time to take your gardening to the next level. Proper nutritional uptake can not occur without proper pH. Take the time. Do it right. (I’m looking in the mirror when I say this, of course.)
Planting and Care
Whether you purchase your blueberry bushes in containers or bare-rooted, winter is the most ideal time to transplant them into your garden.
Till or dig a four-foot-wide strip, twelve inches deep, and incorporate plenty of wetted peat moss or milled pine bark. Space your Rabbiteyes four or five feet apart and plant no deeper than it was grown in its container. In fact, you might even plant just a hair above the soil line, knowing that it’ll settle in after a good soaking.
Remember that whole “do it right” bit? Well, right after planting, prune the bush by about a third. Cutting back each branch in this way removes next year’s flowers (and thus, fruit) and effectively channels the freed-up energy into the plant’s root development, which is where you want it in a young blueberry bush. Sacrificing your first year of berries is hard, I know. (Some even recommend removing flowers the first two years.) But, as is often the case with gardening, sometimes you’ve got to be cruel to be kind.
Come spring, and not before, begin a light fertilizing routine for your baby bush with an organic fertilizer especially formulated for azaleas and other acid-loving plants. Light fertilizing (3-4 oz. per plant) should continue for the first two years, and increase as the plant matures. Remember, more fertilizer does not equal more berries. And more harm than good can arise from over-fertilization.
Establishing a solid watering routine, from the start, is crucial. Blueberry roots are shallow and fibrous. This means they dry out easily and require adequate irrigation throughout the season.
To give you an idea about how much water may be necessary to keep your bushes in tip-top health, consider that (during the growing season) commercial growers in Georgia supply their one-year-old Rabbiteyes three gallons of water a week, per plant, and six-year-old bushes, six gallons a week.
Sure, that’s a decent bit of water. But you can improve irrigation’s efficiency by using drip irrigation and applying a thick layer (4-5 inches) of pine bark or straw over its root base. This will help keep roots cool while minimizing evaporation and weedy competition.
That pretty much covers it. So, you see? Incorporating blueberries into your own home garden is easy! Not as easy as making them disappear, but easy.
Now, if anyone can tell me how to best remove blueberry stains from a computer keyboard, that’d be great.
*For excellent, detailed information on growing blueberries in your home garden, including proper pruning techniques (which, besides the trim at planting time, begins in the plant’s fifth year), fertilizing instructions, diagrams and cultivar recommendations, see this publication developed by UGA’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.
* And for important tips on how to properly grow blueberries in containers, visit this website.
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