YES,
you can grow your own
BLUEBERRIES


February 18, 2011

by Kathy Klein, Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Gardeners' Dirt
PHOTOS BY KATHY KLEIN/VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENER
These blueberry buds are each a potential fruit on the stem and should be removed the first few years of growth for optimum results.
No blueberry plant under 3 years old should be allowed to bear more than a few berries. The blueberry tends to overbear and will exhaust its resources if blooms are not removed.
LEFT:
Blueberries gain their rich color about one week prior to obtaining the maximum flavor and sweetness, so they should be allowed to ripen on the plant. These berries are in the ripening stage and turning from green to blue in color.
RIGHT: PHOTO COURTESY BLUEBERRYCOUNCIL.COM
These Southern highbush blueberries are ready-to-eat whole or to be used in baking. According to the Highbush Blueberry Council, the secret to beautiful-colored berries in baked goods is proper pH. Blueberries turn reddish when exposed to acids like lemon juice and vinegar and greenish-blue in a batter with too much baking soda, which creates an alkaline environment.
Surprisingly to most, blueberries can be grown locally with a little knowledge and proper care. Read on for enjoying your own homegrown blueberries.

ESSENTIAL BASICS

Acidic soil

Perhaps the No. 1 condition that blueberries require is acidic soil. Probably the very best way to insure that the soil for blueberries is adequate is to plan from the start to grow blueberries in a container. With the ideal pH for blueberries listed as 4.5 to 4.8, planting them in 100-percent peat is recommended. Don't mix it with soil. If the soil pH goes above 5.5, the blueberry plants cannot live.

Consistent moisture

The second most important condition to meet for success with growing blueberries is to maintain an even soil moisture. Blueberries have a shallow root system with no root hairs and require even soil moisture without the soil being waterlogged.

Use self-watering container

When you combine the first two conditions for blueberry growth, you may want to consider using a self-watering container. Not only are self-watering containers readily available in gardening centers and on Internet sites, but the Victoria County Master Gardener Association's website provides directions on how you can build your own self-watering container from a previous Gardeners' Dirt article I wrote (www.vcmga.org/2010_Jun10.html).

VARIETY SELECTION

There are a number of varieties of blueberries that have been bred to live in our climate. Look for varieties that have low chilling hour requirements of about 400 to 500 hours.

The two broad categories of blueberries with these characteristics are called rabbiteye and Southern highbush with the best results being from rabbiteye (Vaccinium ashei).

I've personally also grown sunshine blue, a Southern highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum) variety, and although it is rated as only 150 hours chill, it withstands frost, is successful in containers and can tolerate slightly less acid soils.

MULTIPLE VARIETIES EQUAL SUCCESS

The most successful crops will be achieved with multiple varieties of blueberries. An added benefit of multiple varieties is a longer harvest season, since different varieties ripen at different times during the season. Selecting the right varieties can yield fruit from late May to late July.

PLANTING

Blueberry plants are available in many forms, from rooted cuttings to field-grown plants. The prices vary widely, and a gardener should consider that the higher cost for the older plant may be well worth the price. A two-year old, field-grown blueberry bush will be closer to providing fruit and more likely to thrive than a newly-rooted cutting. Plant your bush with as little root disturbance as possible, as quickly as possible after obtaining the plant, and then prune to of the plant to force the plant to work on establishing a strong root system.

CONDITIONS FOR GROWTH, ESTABLISHMENT

Sunlight

Eight to 10 daily hours of sun are required - and late afternoon shade in our climate is a bonus to your containerized plant. Shading only the container from direct summer sun and protecting the containers from hard freezes may also be a consideration to protect the roots.

Watering

Consistent, adequate moisture is a must, which is another reason that self-watering containers are excellent for blueberries. The delicate shallow root zone should not be allowed to dry out. Using rainwater for the blueberries is a good idea, and if rainwater is not available, mixing one cup of distilled vinegar per gallon of water will help preserve the acidic environment that is so essential for the blueberry roots to absorb moisture and nutrients from the soil.

Mulch

Four- to 6-inch deep mulch, such as pine bark, should cover the blueberry roots. The mulch will keep the underlying soil cooler in summer and warmer in winter, preserve moisture, discourage growth of weed competitors and decompose to add nutrients to the container. Refresh the mulch at least yearly.

Fertilizer

Too much or the wrong kind of fertilizer is lethal for blueberry bushes. They perform best using ammonium fertilizers, such as ammonium sulfate although ammonium nitrate and other nitrates may be damaging to roots and should be avoided. During the growing season, fertilizers at half the recommended package strength can be used once the plant is established.

CARE UNTIL HARVEST

As with any fruit, it takes time to grow the plant, but harvest will eventually come. It's year three for blueberries. Before year three, pick off all blooms immediately so you grow a healthy plant first. I know it's hard to do, but you'll reap the rewards later.

Oh, and by the way, blueberry plants along with other fruit and landscape plants will be available at the upcoming Master Gardener plant sale on March 5. See accompanying plant sale information.
RABBITEYE BLUEBERRY VARIETIES
Best results are achieved at growing blueberries locally
with the following rabbiteye varieties:
Climax
Briteblue
Britewell
Delite
Powderblue
Tiffblue
Centurion
Woodard

MASTER GARDENER SPRING PLANT SALE
Saturday, March 5
Victoria Educational Gardeners (VEG) Pavilion,
283 Bachelor's Drive, Victoria Regional Airport
Doors open at 8 a.m.
Blueberry plants along with other fruit and landscape plants will be featured at the sale
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.