Berries tart if not fully ripe; self-fertile
|The best blueberry for Texas is the rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium ashei). It is grown commercially in East Texas, the humid woodlands being typical of native rabbiteye blueberry habitat. One rabbiteye blueberry plant can produce up to 15 pounds of berries per year and is an excellent choice for organic or EarthKind® orchards. Rabbiteye blueberry varieties differ in ripening date, productivity, and fruit size, with some bearing from dime-to nickel-size fruit. They bloom in the spring. The date the flowers appear is affected both by the number of hours below 45°F that an area receives in a year and the warming spring weather. Varieties that need the fewest chill hours typically bloom and set fruit early. Higher chill varieties may not yield well if grown in areas that do not receive enough chill hours. Varieties should be selected which have a chill requirement within 150 hours (above or below) of the average chilling for the growing area. Most rabbiteye blueberry varieties need a pollinizer variety planted nearby to produce the maximum amount of fruit. A few varieties, such as tifblue, are somewhat self-fruitful. It is important to choose pollenizers that bloom in the same part of the season as the main variety being grown.
Soil and climate
Rabbiteye blueberries are calcifuges—plants that do not tolerate alkaline soil or water. They will not thrive unless the soil pH is in the range of 4.0 to 5.5. If soil conditions are not adequately acidic, blueberries may produce satisfactory yields if planted in containers or raised beds with mixtures of peat moss and pine bark. Rabbiteye blueberries respond favorably to mulch, which prevents soil drying and moderates root temperatures. Because their roots are shallow and fibrous and need well-drained soil, sandy soils are ideal for growing blueberries. However, since blueberries are not drought tolerant, drip irrigation should be provided. Planting blueberries on heavy clay soils that have poor internal drainage will cause root decline and poor vigor.
Spacing and planting
Most plants reach mature size in 7 to 8 years, at which time they will be 15 feet tall and 10 feet wide. The bush will consist of many trunks that develop from the crown. Three months before planting new blueberries, use glyphosate herbicide to kill all the grass and weeds in the row, and cultivate the soil to loosen tight areas. In low, flat areas, raise the beds to direct surface water away from the plants. Thoroughly incorporate ¼ to ½ bushel of organic matter per plant at each planting spot before setting the plants out. Because of their acid-forming properties, shredded pine bark and peat moss are good sources of organic matter to use with blueberries. Plant blueberries at least 6 feet apart in rows at least 12 feet apart. Set bare-root or container-grown plants at the same depth at which they grew in the nursery, and water them soon after planting. For bare-root plants, cut the tops back by half while the roots are establishing.
Fertilizer and mulch
Rabbiteye blueberries are sensitive to excessive fertilizer and to some types of fertilizer. Therefore, apply fertilizer only two or three times a year at low rates. Organic and slow-release synthetic fertilizers are preferable. Fertilizers that contain nitrate forms of nitrogen should be avoided because it may slow plant growth. Instead, use fertilizers with nitrogen in the form of urea or ammonium. The most effective and most commonly used nitrogen fertilizer for blueberries in Texas is ammonium sulfate (21-0-0). If fertilized with ammonium sulfate, soils can become too acidic over time. Urea-N fertilizers are less acidifying with repeated use. Do not fertilize newly planted blueberry plants with nitrogen until the plants have established. If the plants are well watered and appear to be thriving, apply ½ to 1 ounce of 21-0-0 fertilizer. For plants that do not grow vigorously, wait until the second season to fertilize. Beginning the second year after planting, fertilize the plants with 21-0-0 at a rate of 1 ounce per year of plant age, up to a maximum of 8 ounces per plant per year for those 8 years old or older. Broadcast the fertilizer evenly around the plant, avoiding concentrations of fertilizer in small areas. Good times to fertilize rabbiteyes are late winter to early budbreak (the beginning of bud growth) and early summer after harvest is complete. Have the soil tested before planting and every third or fourth year thereafter to determine whether it needs other nutrients. Mulch is vital for growing blueberries, especially during the first 2 years of establishment. Mulch assists in acidifying the soil, controlling weeds, conserving soil moisture, and moderating soil temperatures. Apply a layer of mulch 4 to 6 inches deep over an area of 2 feet or more outward from the plant crown. Peat moss, pine straw, pine bark, leaves, and grass clippings are all appropriate mulches. Do not use barnyard manure, which has a high salt content. If weeds grow through the mulch, remove them by hand or with a contact herbicide targeted to grass.
Water is one of the most important needs in establishing and maintaining productive blueberries, particularly during their first year of growth. Water plants thoroughly at planting and twice weekly for first year until they are established. Water plants for a longer time once or twice per week, rather than for a short time each day to promote better root establishment. During fruit production, it is essential to provide adequate moisture for producing plump, juicy berries because blueberry plants have the ability to retract water from berries. Blueberries set next year’s buds in the late summer and early fall. During this period, the plants must receive adequate moisture for plant growth and bud development. Place drip irrigation or soaker hoses underneath several inches of mulch, such as chopped leaves, pine needles, or other organic mulch. Mulch keeps plant roots cool and moist and helps suppress weeds.
Rabbiteye blueberries need occasional pruning. Thin out the lower limbs to keep the fruit from touching the soil. Also thin out any overly vigorous upright shoots several feet from the ground to keep the center of the bush open and to keep the bearing area within reach. As plants begin to age and form thick, gray branches, begin thinning about 20 percent of the branches at ground level every year. This thinning encourages new, productive shoots to emerge from the crown area, keeping the plant younger and smaller.
Harvest season extends from May through July, depending on the varieties grown. Blueberries may be harvested by hand or by machine. Because rabbiteyes ripen unevenly within a fruiting cluster, pick individual berries over a period of 4 to 6 weeks. The berries do not ripen further after harvest; for maximum flavor and minimal bitterness, allow them to ripen on the bush.
|Information on this page is from Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Blueberries, Missouri Botanical Gardens, and/or Alabama Extension Agency Home Gardening Rabbiteye Blueberries|
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