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DALY: Blueberries are care-free and fun to grow

Homeowners often inquire about what kinds of fruiting plants they can grow that require minimal care yet produce an abundant harvest. Blueberries are frequently recommended because they are easy to grow, require minimal maintenance, and are relatively free of any major pests. They are one of the few fruit crops in production today that are native to Georgia. 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 side yards, and to serve as a barrier. Most importantly, blueberry plants provide delicious fruit that have many culinary uses.

There are three types of blueberries grown in Georgia: northern highbush, southern highbush and rabbiteye. 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," and "Premier," midseason varieties include "Brightwell," "Austin," and "Powderblue," and late season varieties include "Delite," and "Baldwin." 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 the addition of organic matter such as peat moss, compost, or manure.

Consider having your soil tested for its pH and nutrients content through Gwinnett County Extension for pH and fertility. The plants grow best in acidic soils with a pH of 4.0 to 5.3. If the soil pH is above this range, apply wettable sulfur (90 percent sulfur) or ammonium sulfate to the soil. Do not apply fertilizer immediately after planting. Fertilizer should be applied four weeks after planting, and in the following years after new growth begins in March. Apply 2 ounces of an all-purpose fertilizer such as 12-4-8, 10-10-10, or an azalea fertilizer to each plant. Refertilize again in May and July. Spread the fertilizer evenly beneath the plants. 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 is through the 2012 Annual Gwinnett County Extension Plant Sale. Go to the extension website at www.gwinnettextension.org to download the order form or call the Gwinnett County Extension office for a form to be mailed to you. The deadline for ordering is Friday. The order pick-up day will be March 29 from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds.

Timothy Daly, MS, Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent, Gwinnett County Extension. Tim may be contacted by phone at 678-377-4010 or by email at timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.