GROWING RABBITEYE BLUEBERRIES IN THE PIEDMONT AND FOOTHILLS
Blueberries are relatively easy to grow but need special site and soil preparation. Three types of blueberries can be grown in North Carolina, Rabbiteye, Highbush and Southern Highbush. Rabbitteye Blueberries are more widely adapted to different soil types and are more drought and heat resistant. For the purposes of this publication the discussion will concentrate on the rabbiteye type.
Rabbiteye Blueberries (Vaccinium ashei) get their name from the immature fruit; the light color and pink blush on the blossom end of the berry looks like a rabbit’s eye. These blueberries are well known for their vigor and productivity. Rabbiteyes ripen later and over a longer period than Highbush Blueberries.
Where to Plant
Transplant plants in full sun for best production. Blueberries will tolerate up to 50 percent shade but the yield is reduced with increasing shade. Avoid areas surrounded by trees. The trees compete with blueberries for water and nutrients, and provide great cover for songbirds. Birds can cause significant damage at harvest time.
How Many to Plant
For an average sized family, 10 plants should provide an adequate supply for fresh use with a surplus for freezing, jelly or jam. Cross-pollination is critical with blueberries and therefore plant two or more varieties within 100 feet of each planting.
For commercial plantings, if you are a newcomer, we recommend that you start small. Consider one-half acre (363 plants) to one acre (726 plants) to begin your blueberry operation. As you understand your production demands, expand your acreage to fit your market needs. (For a commercial operation avoid low-lying planting sites with poor air drainage.These areas are prone to frost damage and could dramatically reduce your berry yields.)
Space Rabbiteye Blueberry plants six (6) feet apart in the row with the rows ten (10) feet apart. Closer spacing is acceptable in home garden plantings if a continuous hedge is desired. Those plants can be set out four (4) feet apart but some periodic pruning may be required.
Rabbiteye Blueberry Varieties for the Piedmont (* New varieties use on a limited basis)
Planting and Soil Preparation
The ideal time to transplant blueberry plants is during the dormant season (November – March). Blueberries require a lower soil pH than many other small fruit crops. These berries need acid soil, normally a soil pH of 5.3 or lower (pH range of 4.0 to 5.3). Therefore typical vegetable garden soil or pasture land would possess a higher soil pH than they need to thrive. (For information on how to lower your soil pH consult your local Cooperative Extension Center.)
Blueberry plants are very shallow rooted. Never plant them deeper they were growing in the nursery or in the container. Blueberries prefer a soil with a high organic matter content however most clay soils in the Piedmont have less than 2 percent organic matter. Incorporating organic materials such as pine bark, aged pine sawdust, rotted wood chips or mushroom compost, will promote better root growth and better plant survival.
Mulching the plants after planting results in uniform soil moisture, reduces soil temperatures and generally promotes better plant growth and survival. If applied after planting and replaced at the rate of 2 inches per year, weed problems are minimized. Ideal materials for mulching could be bark, aged wood chips and pine needles.
Blueberries are very sensitive to drought. In the early establishment years (first 3 years), it is critical to maintain optimum soil moisture to avoid stressing the plants and causing them to become stunted. Supplemental water is absolutely essential. During the first three growing seasons, irrigate twice a week during the summer in the absence of rain. Handwatering with a hose is possible if you have only a few bushes, but either trickle irrigation or a soaker hose is more efficient.
Be certain to have a soil test taken from the site before the plants are set out. Knowing what the soil pH and soil phosphate levels are before planting is extremely important. Do not fertilize immediately after planting. Wait until the first leaves have reached full size, then, apply 1 level Tablespoon of 10-10-10 fertilizer or the special azalea-camellia fertilizer for each year of the plant (ie a 2 year old bush gets 2 Tablespoons). Apply in a circle 1 foot in diameter around each blueberry bush. Gradually increase the fertilizer each year (ie 11 year old bush = 11 Tablespoons, etc) until a total of 1 pint of fertilizer is being used annually.
Blueberry fruit ripens approximately two months after blooming, although harvest time depends on the variety, weather conditions, and plant vigor. Rabbiteye harvest can begin in late June and continue into early August. The berries on rabbiteye plants will continue to increase in size and flavor for some time after they turn blue and appear to be ripe. As mentioned previously, birds also enjoy harvesting ripe blueberries. Nylon netting draped over the bushes or supported with some type of framework is the only practical method of limiting bird damage.
When setting out new plants it is recommended that you remove all of the flower buds during the first growing season. In year two, remove weak shoots and attempt to keep four main upright canes. Some flower buds may be kept to produce fruit in year two if the bush put on vigorous growth the previous year. Bushes may be allowed to produce a full crop starting the third growing season. Maintain a weed and grass free zone around each plant if possible. Grasses such as crabgrass and Bermudagrass are very competitive and can reduce your harvest.
For advice on general pruning on blueberries consult your local Cooperative Extension Center in your county.
Potential for Organic Production
Blueberries can be grown successfully without pesticides in the Piedmont. Japanese beetles can occasionally cause damage to the fruit during ripening. Weeds can be controlled with shallow cultivation or with the use of mulches. The low rates of fertilizer needed by the plants makes organic sources a viable alternative. Rock phosphate at planting and horse manure has proven to be a suitable source of nitrogen.
Resources for this Publication: NC Master Gardener Manual, Grapes & Berries for the Garden, Plantings for Small U-Pick Operations by Dr Mike Mainland, NCSU, Notes on Growing Blueberries in the Home Garden by Dr Bill Cline, NCSU