DALY: Blueberries are carefree and fun to grow

Blueberries are one of the few fruit crops in production today that are native to Georgia. They are easy to grow, require minimal maintenance and are relatively free of any major pests.

The plants have a multitude of uses in the landscape: They can be grown as a hedge to screen out unsightly views, to line driveways and sides of homes, and to serve as a barrier. Most importantly, blueberries provide delicious fruit during the summer months and have many culinary uses.

There are three types of blueberries grown in Georgia: northern highbush, southern highbush, and rabbiteye blueberries. The southern highbush and northern highbush blueberries require higher levels of maintenance, are grown commercially and are not recommended for the homeowner in the Atlanta area. Rabbiteye blueberries are the most adaptable, productive and pest free of the three types of blueberries.

Early season varieties of rabbiteye blueberries include "Climax," "Alapaha," "Chaucer" and "Premier." Midseason varieties include "Brightwell," "Austin," and "Powderblue" and late season varieties include "Delite," and "Tiftblue." Blueberries are not self fruitful. This means they require the planting of a minimum of two different varieties in order for the plants to pollinate and set fruit.

Blueberries need at least six to eight hours of sun a day. They require moist but well-drained soils with organic matter added to it such as peat moss, compost, or manure. The plants grow best in acidic soils with a pH of 4.0 to 5.3. If the soil is above this range, apply wettable sulfur (90 percent sulfur) or ammonium sulfate fertilizer to the soil. Do not apply fertilizer immediately after planting. Unless a soil test is taken, four weeks after planting, and in the following years after new growth begins in March, apply 1 ounce of an all purpose fertilizer such as 12-4-8, 10-10-10, or an azalea fertilizer. Re-fertilize again in June.

Spread the fertilizer evenly beneath the plants. Consider having your soil tested for its pH and nutrients content. The Gwinnett County Extension charges $8 per sample. Apply three inches of pine bark or pine straw mulch around them.

Blueberries produce their fruit from buds on 1-year-old wood, so they should be pruned enough to encourage the production of vigorous new growth each year. For the first five years after planting, minimal pruning will be required. Remove the low spreading branches and those growing through the center of the bush, especially weak and older branches. After a few years of growth, if the plants become too large for ease of harvest, remove one-third of the older stems during the dormant season to improve light and air penetration.

Blueberries, if planted and maintained properly, are a relatively easy fruit to grow. A great opportunity to purchase blueberries and some other excellent plants at great prices is available through the 2010 Annual Gwinnett County Extension Plant Sale. For information on the sale, go to the Gwinnett County Extension Web site at www.gwinnettextension.org or call the Gwinnett County Extension office to have an order form mailed to you.

Timothy Day is an Agricultural and Natural Resources Agent with the Gwinnett County Cooperative Extension. He can be reached by phone at 678-377-4010 or by e-mail at timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com