01 May 2008

Love Blueberries? With Preparation, You Can Grow Your Own

When gardeners want to try something new, expert advice is always welcome. Several people had asked me about blueberry growing so I contacted our local expert, Andy Qualls who grows two or three thousand plants for the family's wholesale fruit business.

Blueberries have become one of the most popular fruits. Growing a few bushes at home is possible if you follow the advice of an expert and start right from the beginning.

"Blueberries are very productive after only a few years and are not difficult to grow," Andy Qualls said.

Qualls works for Muskogee County Conservation District; and, his family grows more than 2,000 blueberry plants on land south of Muskogee.

They sell the fruit wholesale only to Arnold's in Muskogee and Conrad Farms in Bixby from mid-June to August.

"We have had the most success with Northern Highbush and Southern Rabbiteye varieties," Qualls said. "A home gardener who wants enough blueberries to eat and some to freeze or make into jam will want three plants of each variety."

Qualls generously shared tips from his 25 years of experience.

The three requirements for growing blueberries are:
1) Site selection.
2) Soil acidity.
3) Soil moisture and drainage.

Site selection — Fruit production of up to a gallon or more per bush on a five-year-old plant can be expected if plants are in full sun.Part sun works well for the plants but fruit will be slightly reduced.

Light soil is ideal; heavier soil or sandy soil must be amended with plenty of Sphagnum peat moss and small chip Pine bark.

Raised beds where water never stands are ideal sites. Airflow is necessary so select a site where structures, solid fences and other plantings do not block air.

Dig a planting hole 3 feet across and 8 inches deep. Fill the hole with well-mixed one-third Sphagnum peat, one-third Pine bark chips and one-third soil. Mulch the planting area with 3 inches of Pine bark (or other non-packing mulch) to control weeds and prevent drying.

Cottonseed meal may be mixed with soil mixture or mulch to provide slow release nutrients to the plant.

Soil acidity required by blueberries is pH 4.5 to 4.8. Symptoms of pH being too high include yellow streaks on the leaves. A quick fix is a small amount of Aluminum Sulfate around the plants. Chelated iron or leaf feeding with acidic, water-soluble fertilizer plus iron can also help.

The water used on the plants can significantly affect soil acidity and has to be monitored.
Once ideal soil pH is achieved, fertilize with acidic fertilizers,Cottonseed meal or Ammonium Sulfate based fertilizers.

Rabbiteye blueberry plants are less vulnerable to soil problems and can grow with a 5.0 pH. (In comparison, beans and lettuce need pH 6.0to 7.0, azaleas 5.0 to 5.5, and hydrangeas 6.0 to 6.2.)
Soil drainage and moisture are important since blueberries require moist soil but roots will rot or suffocate in standing water during the growing season. If the top one-inch of soil is dry anytime during the growing season, irrigation is needed. Soil moisture should be checked every day. Pruning is also important since all flowers must be removed the first year before fruit forms so the plant can mature before bearing begins.

In following years, pruning is done during plant dormancy to keep the plants healthy. Thin the inside growth, remove weak, dead or dying limbs. Highbush plants require more pruning; Rabbiteye plants develop more extensive root systems so they can support more plant growth.

Prune Bluecrop Highbush plants by one-third each year. Fertilization of blueberries should be cottonseed meal since or ammonium sulfate based fertilizers. Use caution with ammonium sulfate types as they can be over-applied and damage the roots. Slow release fertilizers such asOsmocote can also be used to avoid burning the roots.

Most Highbush blueberries are self-fertile to some extent but having more than one variety will increase pollination and therefore fruit production. Rabbiteye blueberry plants are non-self fertile and require two varieties to produce fruit.

"In 25 years of growing blueberries I have seen them bloom as early as mid-February and as late as mid-April like they did this year," Qualls said. "Every single year has been different.
"Bluecrop and Blueray are older varieties that are hard to beat for berry quality and production," Qualls said. "We will be selling the Highbush plants May 22 and 23."

Finch Pottery and Nursery, www.danfinch.com, telephone (800) 245-4662sells Highbush and Rabbiteye plants. More mature will produce fruit sooner in your garden. At Finch, 3-year-old plants are $6 each or$3.25 each on orders of 100 plants.

The plant sale at the Muskogee County Conservation District is a fund-raising event to help finance projects such as the development of the newly donated 152-acre nature preserve.

"It costs $50 to $60 an acre to restore land, put in trails, restrooms and other amenities," Qualls said. "The money we make at the sale benefits those projects."

The sale will include shrubs (several colors of crape myrtle,forsythia, lilac, wisteria, Rose of Sharon), fruit (blueberry and thornless blackberry) and trees (redbud, red maple and pine).

If you are in town and need some of those plants stop by the office during the sale.


Lets Plant said...

Great post!! Great pictures too!!

Molly Day said...

We planted blueberries twice on our place and then gave up.
Andy's specific information made us think we should try again.

Hope is a gardener's middle name!