Why you should plant a Rabbiteye Blueberry
Some people are wondering how the higher price of gas will affect our food system. Does it continue to make sense to import potatoes from Maine or Montana when local farmers can grow them? Does it make sense to ship a strawberry in from California when local farmers can grow them? Over time higher energy cost will cause some adjustments, but I still envision my children living in a land of food plenty and not in a land of food shortages. One simple change I would encourage for the future is incorporating some food crops into our landscapes. From a horticultural, nutritional and economic standpoint, most homeowners should have 4 or 5 edible crops in their landscape. Of these, the front runner would be the rabbiteye blueberries. Here are 10 reasons why.
Antioxidants. Blueberries are packed with antioxidants. This has been well documented in recent testing but has been suspected for years. During WWII English pilots would regularly consume billberry jelly (a blueberry relative) for phyto-nutrients to help night vision. Very few people get enough antioxidants and having a blueberry bush beside the house is one way to increase your intake.
Beautiful. The white blooms on blueberries are small but delightful. The red fall color is fairly reliable. The trouble with the fall color is the timing. It normally colors after the other trees and shrubs have already lost their leaves which makes color combinations impossible. Still the red under certain sunlight condition or against an early snowfall is a glorious experience.
Tolerant of a wide range of soils. The rabbiteye varieties can be planted on any decent soil in Cabarrus County. The pH needs to be between 5 and 5.5 and you may need to build up the soil into a raised bed to help with drainage. The southern hybrids will work on our better soils (perhaps 15 % of the county). I have never personally killed a highbush blueberry, but I have watched them die in other peoples garden. I don't offer any hope for growing them in our soils.
Tolerant of partial shade. Our suburban homes need trees for a variety of reasons. Blueberries would prefer full sun, but will continue to produce as shade trees grow.
No insects. On blueberries I haven't had a problem with any insect other than caterpillars. If I catch the caterpillars in time I can win that encounter. If you don't catch them, you may lose a year's production, but a single defoliation will not kill the plant. In a best case future food system scenario, I envision crops that require pesticide applications being concentrated into small farms. This allow some efficiency and safety in pesticide application rather than inefficiently introducing pesticides into every suburban yard.
Disease resistant. Other than root rot, there isn't a major disease that hurts blueberries in our area.
Long harvest season. Picking normally starts before the end of July. I haven't documented my latest picking date, but I remember one year when I picked a few blueberries after returning from a deer hunt. That would have been November or December. That year I had a four month harvest window. Sometimes the berries will bust after heavy fall rains, which means a shorter season those years.
Easy to store. Blueberries can be stuck in the refrigerator for 2 weeks with no problem. Six weeks in the refrigerator isn't out of the question although you will lose some quality. Then you can drop them in the freezer.
Great taste. I just threw that one in to get to a nice round number of reasons.
Multiple uses. Fresh blueberries can be tossed on cereal. My wife can make a great blueberry pie from fresh berries. I often toss a few into peach cobblers for the blue color. Frozen blueberries make a great smoothie and I eat most of mine that way. I have canned them and made jam from them. My mom would cook and then freeze a blueberry pie filling.
There you have 10 reasons to plant a blueberry bush. I bet that is more reasons than you can come up with to plant a leyland cypress or a burfordi holly. Those plants have their uses. And I don't have anything again either of them, other than the fact that we don't need a blue million of them.
Update The most common question I got about this column was where to purchases blueberry plants. I know Turtle Creek Nursery, Christy's Nurseries and Brown's Nursery have rabbiteye blueberries because I have seen them. NW Cabarrus High School has several plants for sale. Other nurseries probably have some. The best known mail order source is Finch's Blueberry Nursery PO Box 699 Bailey NC 27807 but several other nurseries sell them. Make sure they are labeled rabbiteye blueberries. You might find the scientific name of Vaccinium ashei. (Botanist would probably prefer to call them Vaccinium stamineum var. caesium but I have never heard anybody in agriculture call them by that name.) Some well know rabbiteye blueberries include Tifblue, Climax, Premier, Columbus, Ira, Yakin, Powderblue and Woodard. A few cultivars I have seen in local stores that are not rabbiteyes include Chandler, Bluechip, Blueray, Patriot, and Jersey. Avoid those. There are some Southern hybrids that can make it on our better soils. They include O'Neal and Legacy. They have quality fruit and an earlier picking season but less yield. I would steer a homeowner toward the rabbiteyes.
The official planting recommendation is 6 feet apart in rows 10 feet apart. I have spaced my Tifblue plants 10 feet apart and have never regretted it.
Another question was when to plant blueberries. Container blueberries can be planted any time of the year. Fall is a good time for planting. One person asked the best time to dig a sprout from somebody else blueberry plant. Spring works best for that planting.
When planting blueberries the official recommendation is 3 or 4 inches of organic matter incorporated into the soil. Leaf litter compost would work. Mini pine nuggets would also work. One grower told me he got the best results when he used a bushel of sawdust per plant. We normally don't use sawdust as a soil amendment because it ties up the nitrogen but blueberries are right at home in low nitrogen environments. I would avoid peat moss even though the official recommendations include it. I think peat moss can hold too much water for blueberry roots.
In our soil you might as well plan on planting on a mound about 5 or 6 inches high to get the drainage you need.
Another person asked how much shade a blueberry would tolerate. I have seen blueberries produce in total shade but I wouldn't plant one in less than 5 hours of sun during harvest time. Full sun would produce better yields and quality.
Blueberries normally grow in acidic low nitrogen soils. They prefer soils with a pH around 5.2 or 5.3. Most of our soils will work fine. If the soil has been limed or had wood ashes applied, you may need to drive the pH down by using sulfur. A soil test is the only way to know for sure. A few of our slate belt soils actually need liming to get the proper pH. One farmer told me he applied 2 tons of lime per acre the year before planting blueberries. I would have been scared to do that but I never saw a pH problem on these berries.
If there is a trick to growing blueberries it is the mulch. A 4 to 6 inch sawdust or wood chip mulch will break down and provide all the nutrients that a mature plant needs. In fact, additional fertilize may create enough shade to reduce the yield. If you start off with low numbers on your soil test, use small amounts of azalea fertilize to build the soil. Even then I would wait until the plant is established.
I once heard a speaker talk for a solid hour on pruning blueberries and never repeated a thing. I will never know that much about pruning blueberries. Fortunately, you can get blueberries even if you never prune. Blueberries have a tendency to grow too high for easy picking. Once your plant gets older you can cut these tall shoots back and force production closer to the ground.
Article was written by David Goforth Agriculture Extension agent North Carolina Cooperative Extension Cabarrus County Center. Visit my homepage http://cabarrus.ces.ncsu.edu/ or http://cabarrus.ces.ncsu.edu/index.php?page=lawngarden or my blog http://gardeninggurugoforth.blogspot.com/
Contact me at David_Goforth@ncsu.edu. Reviewed 2007.