Blueberries can thrive in Georgia gardens

July 31, 2013 

Georgia is the Peach State but we could also be the Blueberry State as well. Blueberries now produce more income for Georgia farmers than any other fruit. In 2011, Georgia farms produced more than 65 million pounds of blueberries worth more than $254 million. This is excellent for a fruit that is native to Georgia.

Most Georgia blueberries are the rabbiteye type, called this because the fruit is about the size of a rabbit’s eye. The blueberries grown in northeastern United States are usually the northern highbush variety, a larger blueberry. Though the northern highbush variety does not grow as well in Middle Georgia, a cross between rabbiteye and highbush blueberries that can be grown here has been made. This blueberry is called the southern highbush and it typically produces earlier and larger fruit; however, it can be more difficult to grow.

This year’s blueberry crop was delayed about a week due to weather. However, most of the crop has been harvested now. Some of the later varieties may still have a few fruits. The rain caused some fruits to split, but, in general, the crop has been a good one.

Another great thing about blueberries is that they are easy to grow in home gardens. They have a great taste and are easy to freeze and cook, but there are other reasons to grow blueberries,

Blueberries are relatively pest free. Though we are seeing new pests crop up on blueberries (like spotted wing fruit fly), blueberries do not typically have to be sprayed to prevent pests. Farmers and gardeners watch their crops carefully for pests and begin control measures only if needed. Often blueberries never have significant pest problems.

Blueberries are also good for us. They contain anti-oxidants, chemicals that prevent damage to our bodies by harmful environmental factors. Blueberries can play a role in promoting good vision, preventing heart disease and slowing some effects of aging.

There are now some excellent varieties you can plant in the garden. The University of Georgia has had a blueberry breeding program for at least 60 years, and many new varieties have been released. In fact, the best varieties to plant now were not even available when I started working with UGA Extension in the 1980s. If you have not looked at the newest innovations in blueberries, you are probably missing a lot.

Although the best time to plant blueberries is winter, some people plant them throughout the growing season. You may want to research the best varieties now and look for sources of plants so that you can plant the best blueberries this winter. Some of the newer varieties can be hard to find.

Newer rabbiteye blueberries are often larger and less likely to split. The rabbiteye variety Titan can have fruits as large as a quarter. Though the southern highbush varieties are harder to grow, some people plant a few highbush types to produce early fruit before the rabbiteye types produce.

Blueberries prefer “new soil” for best growth. They grow best in areas that have not been highly fertilized for gardens and farms. Areas that have been in woods or fields are probably best. Blueberries also benefit from mixing ground pine bark or peat moss into the soil at planting. This is especially important for highbush varieties. A 2 to 3 inch deep mulch of pine bark is also important.

You will need to plant more than one variety of rabbiteye blueberries for cross-pollination. Select varieties that mature at different times to extend your harvest. For more information on selecting and planting blueberries, see www.tinyurl.com/k2lckqb.

If you already have blueberries planted, once they finish producing you need to care for them in preparation for the next harvest. Fertilize them lightly with an azalea fertilizer. Apply an ounce of azalea fertilizer or 12-4-8 per foot of plant height. Scatter it evenly around the plant and never pile fertilizer in one spot.

If some branches have gotten too tall to harvest, you can cut these down to 24 inches tall. They should regrow and should produce berries the year after next. Cut one third of the branches like this each year and over three years you will shorten the entire plant. For more blueberry information, see www.tinyurl.com/n4pdn5j

Willie Chance works with the University of Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture and helps to train the turf and landscape industry.

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