Hometown News For Orange County, Texas

Blueberries: How to Stop Singing the 'Blues'

Gardeners, unfortunately most of us are pressed for time and due to our time constraints, we tend to shop for everything hurriedly! Many of us shop for plants in the same manner, quickly, without regard to the plant label instructions (planting instructions listed on the reverse side of the label-though instructions are vague at best). For most annual bedding plants, perennials, herbs, vegetables, shrubs, and trees it isn't a huge issue and can often be managed simply by amending the soil as plants are planted, especially if new plants are placed in existing garden locations. There are numerous plant exceptions we as gardeners should be mindful of, plants that require specific soil types, such as acidic soil in which to thrive. There is a vast array of plants which are classified as "acid-loving' plants which include: evergreens, rhododendron, hydrangea, camelia, azalea, and blueberry to name a few. Before I continue, note it is always best to have your garden soil analyzed before planting, to understand exactly the amendments needed the amount for optimal plant growth. Today we're going to focus on growing blueberries and getting them to thrive in our Southeast TX climate.

There are numerous species of blueberry native to North America. The best types for SETX gardeners are rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium ashei), A healthy rabbiteye blueberry, mature plant can produce up to 15 pounds of fruit per season. The southern highbush blueberries (hybrids of Vaccinium corymbosum, V. ashei and V. darrowii) require fewer 'chill' hours, and bloom earlier in spring than rabbiteyes, but are susceptible to damage by late frosts. Since our environment is ever-changing, this gardener has chosen to plant three different varieties of rabbiteye blueberries, which have yet to disappoint! Note that southern highbush blueberries tend to fruit up to a month earlier than rabbiteye blueberries, so having both varieties can extend fruit availability.

Some of the more common rabbiteye varieties are: 'Brightwell', 'Austin', 'Premier,' and 'Vernon'. To maximize fruit set and increase production, a minimum of two different varieties must been planted. There are a couple varieties which are slightly self-fruitful but produce better yields with another variety for cross pollination. Blueberry flowers are bell-shaped, whitish pink in color, hanging upside-down and require insects to pollinate each flower. The best time to plant is winter through early spring, bare-root, or container-grown plants (my preference). One of the biggest mistake gardeners make when planting blueberries is planting them too deeply. The plants have very fine, fibrous root systems that will not recover when planted too deep. All blueberries require acidic soil and thrive when the pH range is maintained between 4.5–5.5. Our SETX clay soil tends to be more alkaline (having a higher pH) than the ideal range required by blueberries but also tends to hold too much water, so consider growing them in raised beds or containers. This gardener filled several large (150-gallon) livestock troughs (note: multiple 2-inch holes were drilled into the bottom of each drainage) and each was filled each with a mix of peat moss/partially composted pine bark. A 1/4 or 1/3 peat and 3/4 or 2/3 finely ground composted pine bark which is a great ratio, wetting each layer, then thoroughly mixing with a spade before adding additional layers. Note, that only two plants were planted into each of the 150-gallon containers, my message to you is do not crowd blueberries into a container! A raised bed can be made approximately two feet tall and three feet wide. If growing in individual containers, remember the bigger the container, the bountiful harvest, the better! Good drainage is imperative.

Blueberries root systems are highly sensitive to fertilizer, care must be taken to not apply too much at any given time. My recommendation is to use products specifically formulated for blueberries or azaleas. They are also sensitive to drought conditions, especially during the first year, so moisture levels must be managed, i.e., don't keep the soil saturated nor let the soil completely dry out, especially when the plants are loaded with fruit or during our summer months. Blueberries' shallow root systems don't require deep watering but benefit from a mulch layer, minimizing moisture loss due to evaporation. Applying a 2 or 3-inch layer of organic mulch (pine straw or pine bark) to soil surface is the key to successful blueberry production.

Blueberries do not ripen at once, with each cluster of fruit having berries at varying stages of ripeness. For the best quality and maximum ripeness, pick berries that are entirely blue (no hint of red). Blueberries do not get sweeter after harvesting, so harvest them as they ripen (daily) before the birds harvest them for you! Birds can be problematic, enjoying the fruit as much we do, so consider investing bird netting to cover your plants before fruit begins to ripen.

Blueberries are easy to grow when provided with the optimum growing conditions, variety selection and soil preparation with few pests requiring little fertilizer. Blueberries don't like clay soil or standing water, but don't let this be a deterrent to stop you from growing them! They perform admirably in raised beds and large containers with a little TLC and the right soil mix!

So long for now fellow gardeners, let's go out and grow ourselves a greener, more sustainable world, one plant at a time! Contact me by email: [email protected] to have gardening questions answered.


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