Blueberry revolution: How and when to plant

Published 6:31 pm Friday, January 12, 2018

Georgia may have to change the emblem on the state license plate from the “Peach State” to the “Blueberry State.”

Blueberries have taken the state by storm. The crop is worth roughly $229 million each year. Georgia growers produce over 62 million pounds of blueberries per year. Michigan, the nation’s leader in blueberry production is feeling the pressure. Currently there are over 20,000 acres of blueberries in Georgia. They are taking the niche in acreage that tobacco once held.

This delicious and healthy fruit are high in antioxidants, have anti-aging activity, promote healthy urinary tracks, improve vision and help fight heart disease. Blueberries are native to Georgia and you can spot the native varieties on Pine Mountain in FDR State Park. What’s neat is that these wonder berries can be grown in your own backyard.

Blueberries under good management will produce berries by the second or third year and by the sixth year as much as two gallons per plant. They can live up to ten to 15 years. There are several categories of blueberries that grow in Georgia, Rabbiteye, Southern Highbush and Northern Highbush with Rabbiteye being the best bet for our area. Rabbiteyes require cross pollination so you need to plant two different varieties for successful fruit setting. If you choose varieties from different ripening categories, you can spread the berry season out. Early season varieties that are recommended are Alapaha, Vernon, Titan, Climax and Premier. Mid-season varieties are Brightwell, Powderblue and Tiftblue. Late season varieties are Baldwin, Centurion and Ochlockonee.

Winter is a great time for transplanting blueberries. The site should be in full sun for best results but you can get by with sun for one-half day. Test the soil first. Blueberries require an acid soil with a pH between 4.5 and 5.2. If the pH is too high, sulfur can be applied at a rate of .7 pounds per 100 square feet yearly. Till the soil eight to twelve inches deep with plenty of mulch tilled in three to four feet wide. Never add lime or ash since this will raise the soil pH. Loosen up pot bound root systems and transplant them to the same depth the plants grew in the nursery. Remove the low, twiggy growth at the base of the plant and prune the remaining tip shoots to remove the flower buds. About a third to half of the plant top should be removed in this process. Make sure the soil is firm after planting. Apply about three to four inches of mulch around the plants to conserve water and suppress weeds.

During the first year prune any flowers or fruit that escaped the initial pruning process. This helps the plant concentrate on establishment rather than fruit.

Refrain from using any fertilizer at transplanting. In late March to early April apply two ounces of azalea special fertilizer, 4-8-8 or one ounce of 12-4-8. If you have sufficient rain or have been irrigating them apply the same fertilizer rate in May and July. Spread the fertilizer evenly over an 18 inch diameter circle with the plant in the center. Keeping the weeds down is essential. Use pine straw or pine bark mulch in an area of at least three feet by three feet. This will improve plant vigor and reduce competition for light and nutrients.

During the second year, apply two ounces of 10-10-10 or 12-4-8 or three to four ounces of azalea special fertilizer 4-8-8. Do not over fertilize and spread the fertilizer in a 24 inch diameter circle around the plant. Each year thereafter, continue to fertilize according to soil test recommendations.

After establishment blueberries require very little pruning until they reach about four to six feet tall. At this point, you can start a cane renewal pruning program by removing two or three of the largest canes from ground level to 24 inches from the ground. Over a period of five years, the entire bush will be renewed. When rainfall is lacking, water the plants throughout the growing season, especially young plants. Water is important for plant growth and for fall fruit bud formation.

Growing blueberries is one way of making healthy food choices. Join the blueberry club and help make Georgia number one in the nation in blueberry production.

What’s going on in Extension?

Tree seedlings can be ordered from the Georgia Forestry Commission, (706) 845-4122

If you have any questions or concerns, stop by or call the office. UGA has a wealth of information for home and property owners.

Brian Maddy is the ANR Agent for Troup County Extension. The Troup County Extension office is located at 144 Sam Walker Drive, LaGrange. 30240 (706) 883-1675. Monday – Friday 8 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 5 p.m.