There may be a peach on our license plates, but since 2005, the most valuable fruit crop produced in Georgia is the blueberry. Surprised? Don’t be. Our state ticks all the right boxes when it comes to providing the near-perfect environment for this tasty treat celebrated by gardeners, foodies, and nutritionists alike.
Blueberries require an acidic soil with a 4.5-5.2 pH in order to thrive, and Georgia provides that in vast quantities. Commercial blueberry production is centered primarily in southeastern Georgia, where this ideal soil pH is in abundance, but we Piedmont home gardeners can make changes to our soil to bring it in line with those requirements. If you need to lower the soil pH before planting, you are advised to mix in some sulfur six months prior to planting and then add acidic peat moss at the time of planting.
The two most important decisions you need to make prior to planting are cultivar choices and site selection. When choosing cultivars in containers, select a 2- or 3-gallon size over a 1-gallon, as the larger the size of the bush at planting, the quicker you will be able to enjoy a first harvest. Keep in mind that the first year after planting, you must force yourself to remove the blossoms to help the bush grow more quickly. You will see some fruit in the second or third year following transplanting, with increasing yields each subsequent year.
The three types of blueberries grown in our state are Southern highbush (grown mainly for commercial production in South Georgia), the northern highbush (thriving mainly in the North Georgia mountains), and the rabbiteye. Rabbiteye blueberries are native to our state and can be successfully grown by home gardeners in our Zone 8a county. Some rabbiteye cultivars recommended for our area are: early season producers Alapaha, Climax*, and Premier*; mid-season Brightwell, Powderblue*, and Tifblue*; and late season Baldwin and Ochlockonee. Rabbiteye blueberries are considered “self-unfruitful” and require cross-pollination for acceptable fruit set, so plan to plant at least two varieties and encourage the presence of bees.
Do a soil test in the area you select, preferably 4-6 months prior to planting, as you may need to make soil amendments. You also may decide as I have that you can control soil issues and create a more hospitable environment for your blueberries by planting in raised beds. Keep in mind that newly-set plants will need to be watered in thoroughly and then receive at least 1” of water per week for the first few years, so identify a reliable and convenient water source prior to site selection.
Blueberry bushes should be transplanted during the late fall or the winter months so they can establish a good root system before the hot, summer months arrive. Cultivate the soil of your site by tilling to a depth of 8-12” and 3-4’ in width. Plan on providing 6’ spacing between plants. For each bush, dig a hole wide enough so that the roots will have plenty of room to spread out, and only as deep as the plant was in the nursery pot. Firm the soil around the roots and water thoroughly, but DO NOT APPLY FERTILIZER at this time.
Blueberries are very sensitive to fertilizers. In the second season, apply about two ounces of an acidic fertilizer per bush, using the same fertilizer as camellias and azaleas, but be careful not to overdo it. Excessive amounts of fertilizer will kill the plants, so follow label instructions.
Pruning is an important part of growing blueberries. It promotes the growth of strong wood, which is necessary for good fruit production, and rids the bush of weak, spindly growth. Prune your new plant back 1/3-1/2 at planting, and after becoming established, your rabbiteyes will require little pruning until about their 5th year, other than to remove any excessively tall canes which can be pruned back to 5-6” every Winter.
Blueberries have few pests, with the two main ones being birds and weeds. Protect your harvest with some kind of netting, or you can count on the birds harvesting your fruit before you do.
Weeds compete for available nutrients and water, so keep the area around each bush as free of weeds as possible. Rabbiteye blueberries have a shallow, fibrous root system, meaning you need to be cautious when cultivating around them after planting. Mulches are good for controlling weed growth, with pine straw being a good acidic choice.
Need a soil test kit or Extension publication on Home Garden Blueberries? The Walton County Extension Master Gardener Help Desk is staffed on Monday (9:00-12:00) and Wednesday (1:00-4:00); you can also email us at email@example.com or call 770-269-1925.
Patricia Lunn Adsit is a Walton County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer as well as a member of the Garden Communicators Association (GardenComm). She lives and gardens in Loganville, GA, where she has the starred* cultivars of blueberries.