It’s blueberry season, y’all, and fresh, locally grown blueberries are deliciously available now.
Blueberries are one of the easiest to grow and lowest maintenance fruiting plants for home landscapes.
A variety of characteristics are the reason.
The bushes are relatively compact and do not occupy as much space as fruit trees, and so they fit into almost any situation. Plus, they are attractive, productive and don’t require a lot of spraying for insect and disease control.
Here in Louisiana, we plant the rabbiteye blueberry, Vaccinium virgatum, which is native to the southeastern United States. There are a number of rabbiteye blueberry cultivars.
Blueberries are ideal for edible landscaping — the incorporation of food-producing plants seamlessly into the landscape design. Blueberries are neat, attractive shrubs that can serve as hedges, privacy screens or background plantings for beds. They also can be used in masses or as focal points in the landscape.
They are adaptable to growing in containers, making it possible for people without a yard to grow blueberries on balconies, decks, porches and patios.
The foliage of rabbiteye blueberries is an appealing blue green that often turns brilliant shades of orange and red in the fall (another notable ornamental feature). Blueberry bushes are deciduous and drop most or all their leaves over the winter.
The small, urn-shaped white flowers that appear along the branches in the spring are not especially showy, but they cluster along the branches prettily and provide nectar and pollen to bees and other insects.
The fruit that follows adds visual interest as it changes color through the season — turning from green to pink to blue as it ripens. It’s said that the resemblance of the pink fruit to the pink eyes of albino rabbits is where the name “rabbiteye” comes from.
Check your soil pH
The native origins of rabbiteye blueberry cultivars means they are well adapted to both the soil and the climate of Louisiana. That said, blueberries are native to areas where the soil is quite acid, and your soil must be acid enough to be successful with them. Blueberries are acid-loving plants that grow best in soil that has a pH between 4.5 and 5.5.
The pH scale, which runs from 1 to 14, is used to indicate the degree of acidity or alkalinity of soil. A pH of 7 is neutral, a pH above 7 is alkaline and any reading below 7 is acid. The acidity or alkalinity of soil has a significant effect on the availability of the mineral nutrients that plants need. If the pH is too high, acid-loving plants like blueberries are not able to obtain enough of some of the minerals they need to absorb from the soil, especially iron.
Before considering blueberries for your landscape, it is best to determine the pH of your soil. Contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office about getting your soil tested.
Soils north of Lake Pontchartrain are often acid enough for blueberries to thrive. The soil south of the lake, however, tends to be slightly alkaline.
If your soil is not acid enough, the pH can be lowered by incorporating finely ground sulfur into the soil of the area where the bushes will be planted. But, in areas where the pH is above 7, you may have more success growing blueberries in containers.
It is best to plant blueberries from November to February because it gives the plants an opportunity to become established before the stressful heat of summer. But now is the time to prepare an area to plant them if your soil is not acid enough and you need to add sulfur to lower the pH. It takes several months for sulfur to affect the pH of the soil. Dug into beds now (along with generous amounts of peat moss), it will have done its job of lower the pH when it is time to plant the bushes.
What you'll need
You need to plant more than one cultivar of rabbiteye blueberries for cross-pollination. Planting several cultivars also allows you to spread out the harvest season. It is a good idea to select early, mid- and late-season varieties. This will allow you to harvest blueberries from mid- to late May to late June.
Cultivars that ripen earliest include Austin, Brightwell, Climax, Premier and Woodard. Midseason cultivars are Bluebelle, Briteblue, Chaucer, Powderblue and Tifblue. The latest ripening cultivars are Baldwin, Centurion, Choice and Delite.
You might also want to try some of the new hybrid Southern highbush blueberries, like Sharpblue, Flordablue and Avonblue. These blueberries are evergreen and produce ripe fruit much earlier in March and April.
The standard spacing for rabbiteye blueberries is 6 feet between plants, but you may want to plant them closer together. Space is often limited in home landscapes, and a spacing of four feet apart is adequate. If blueberries are being planted to create a privacy screen or hedge, plant the bushes four feet apart in the row.
Put your blueberry plantings in locations that receive at least a half a day of sun, but sun all day will produce the best harvests. Blueberries are intolerant of wet, poorly drained soils. Make sure you plant them in areas that drain well where standing water does not persist after a rain or plant in raised beds.
Rabbiteye blueberries are an excellent choice for home fruit growers because they are relatively low maintenance and do not need extensive annual pruning. When it comes to blueberries, you get a lot of return for the effort. Blueberry plants typically have very few insect or disease problems and pesticides are rarely needed in home garden plantings.