Growing Rabbiteye Blueberry Bushes: Plan Now, Plant Later

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

Fall is for planting! We master gardeners say that all the time. It is true for most plants, yet not for  blueberry bushes as I have learned from Bill Cline, an NC State Extension specialist on blueberries. The best time to plant or transplant blueberry bushes is when they are dormant. In Durham County, February is a safe bet.

I planted three Rabbiteye blueberry bushes several years ago in an open wooded area; two survive but far from thrive. I wanted to know what I did wrong and, more importantly, what I needed to do right. The payoffs would be sweet juicy fruits a short walk from my front door and a bushy landscape plant with crimson autumn color.

RabbiteyeRed
Crimson-colored autumn foliage makes blueberry bushes attractive landscape plants. Even this spindly one in my yard. Photo by Andrea Laine.

About the Species

Blueberry bushes are deciduous woody perennials that are members of the Heath family and Vaccinium species. They are acid-loving plants native to North America and related to azaleas and cranberries. They are pollinated by insects. A winter chilling period is required for fruit to form.

Types of blueberries that can be grown in North Carolina are Highbush, Rabbiteye and Southern Highbush. The Rabbiteye (Vaccinium virgatum), however, is native to the southeast and easiest to grow. It is the one that does best in home gardens in the Piedmont. Rabbiteye berries will ripen from mid-June to mid-august and there are many cultivated varieties.

Powder blue fruit
Fruit on a ‘Powder Blue’ Rabbiteye blueberry bush. Photo by Bill Cline, NCSU. Used with permission.

Growing Conditions

Pay close attention to three conditions for your Rabbiteyes to thrive: Full sun, acidic soil and good drainage. If sited anywhere with less than full sun, the plants will struggle. If the pH is not within the range of 4 to 5, nutrients may not be absorbed. Planting bushes in a raised bed fashion in soil amended with pine bark will help lower the pH and improve drainage. Cline notes that a lack of aeration in the soil is a problem he sees often in home gardens. Mix and mound the amended soil and mulch the area with bark, wood chips, pine straw or black plastic to suppress weeds and hold in moisture.

At planting time

At planting time (late winter), remove all flower buds and prune canes to six inches. Keep only three or four upright shoots. This will encourage the plant to branch out and form a vegetative, multitrunk bush. Removing the flower buds will prevent fruiting the first year and build a stronger plant. It may be three years before you harvest a crop. If you are transplanting an existing bush as I am, cut the top off and just move the root ball. Water the plant regularly the first year.

Pruning

Pruning stimulates growth of young and productive shoots. Selectively prune the bush every year during winter.

 

blueberry bush
Blueberry bushes in need of a good pruning. Don’t be timid! Photo by Ann Barnes, used with permission.

BeforeAfterBlue Pruning

Don’t be timid! Remove old, weak or diseased canes. Remove twiggy matchstick wood and take a few larger canes out each year. Strive for an upright plant. Annually remove 40 to 50 percent of flower buds; this will encourage bigger berries. Cline notes that no one should need to climb a ladder to pick blueberries; on a properly pruned bush the majority of fruit will be beneath knees and shoulders.

 

Tips

  • An insect must visit each flower or a berry will not form. Plant two or more cultivars for cross-pollination and to stretch the fruiting season and increase the yield. Standard Rabbiteye cultivars are: Premier, Tifblue, Powderblue, Climax, Brightwell. Newer ones are: Alapaha, Vernon, Ochlockonee, Columbus, Onslow, Ira.
  • Make every effort to keep bushes healthy through the spring and into summer months. Flowers need to survive in order for fruits to develop.

    Tifblue flowers
    Flowers on a ‘Tifblue’ Rabbiteye bluberry bush. Photo by Bill Cline, NCSU. Used with permission.
  • Pick your berries and collect them in shallow buckets so that fruit isn’t crushed. To increase quality and reduce rot, pick all ripe fruit at each harvest and do not pick or handle fruit when it is wet.
  • Test your soil before fertilizing.

Alas, I probably cannot produce the ideal growing conditions for blueberry bushes in my landscape, so I have adjusted my expectations. Rather than adding more bushes and creating a blueberry patch, I will transplant the two I already have to the sunniest part of my yard (half day at best) and follow all the tips above with the hope that my bushes may succeed as ornamental plants if not great fruit producers. And, as long as there are farmer’s markets in Durham, I’ll be berry happy.

Five ways to enjoy fresh blueberries:

  1. Bake into a pie. Here’s an award-winning recipe from the 2015 NC State Fair.
  2. Sprinkle on a green salad.
  3. Add to a breakfast bowl of oatmeal or yogurt.
  4. Straight up as a snack.
  5. Add antioxidant power to a smoothie.

 

Resources and Further Reading

NCSU’s blueberry portal:
https://blueberries.ces.ncsu.edu/

Growing blueberries in the home garden
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/growing-blueberries-in-the-home-garden

Principles of Pruning the Highbush Blueberry
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/principles-of-pruning-the-highbush-blueberry

22-minute video of hands-on blueberry pruning workshop
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkFhMwoiUDQ

Blueberry pruning diagrams
https://blueberries.ces.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/blueberry-pruning-diagrams.pdf?fwd=no

Fresh blueberries are extremely perishable and easily damaged by rough handling and adverse temperatures
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/postharvest-cooling-and-handling-of-blueberries

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/nursery-list-of-small-fruit-cultivars-for-home-use-in-north-carolina

An overview of growing Rabbiteye bluberries from Alabama cooperative extension
http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-1078/ANR-1078.pdf

Recipe for Blueberry Pie
http://statefairrecipes.com/2016/09/2220/

 

 

 

Struggling with Lettuce: Germination

by Kathryn Hamilton, EMGV

By rights, I should never have to buy lettuce. I own heat pads and grow lamps. I have both a patio and a covered porch that face south and are warm in winter. I have exposures east and north. I buy every lettuce seed packet that waves at me. By any stretch of the imagination I should have at least one pot of lettuce growing some place at any time of the year. But, my nemesis has been getting seeds to sprout.

Lettuce needs light and water to germinate. It is supposed to germinate in seven to 10 days. In my experience a generous sprinkling of seeds on top of soil-starting medium might generate two or three weak sprouts after weeks of tender care and gentle spritzing to keep the seeds moist.

Over the last several years, I’ve started all my

After-6-days-little-forrest
Seeds sprinkled on top of a sponge covered with a dome. Germination in three days; within five days a little forest of sprouts.

other seedlings in a domed enclosure that relies on sponges as growing medium. Knowing that the seeds need light to sprout, I never considered dropping the tiny lettuce seeds into the little sponge holes. But after another frustrating failure with seed-starting medium, I decided to try placing the seeds on top of the sponge plugs. And within three days, sprouts. Within five days, a forest of healthy lettuce starts. By the two-week mark, sprouts healthy enough to transplant.

At the same time, I decided to experiment with a low-tech approach. I found an old low-tech-plasticsponge, cut it in half so it wouldn’t be too thick and sprinkled the seeds. A big advantage of sponge over plugs was that I could clearly see where the seeds were sprinkled and using the tip of a knife they could be spread out. I put the sponge in a clean plastic container from roasted take-out chicken. I poked holes in the top, wet the sponge and added water to the bottom of the container.

All seeds were grown indoors, in a temperate environment that was low-to mid seventies. I started four experiments: two high-tech (sponges and domes from a seed house) and two low-tech  (chicken take-out plastic and household sponges) at the same time.  All seeds were started under grow lights, but one of each set was placed on a heat pad.lineup-cropped

Within two days my heart sank. It looked as if the low-tech

After-2-days-not-mold
Not mold! Plants with furry stems breaking out of their seeds.

container without heat had turned into mold. But, on closer examination, my seeds had begun to sprout. The high-tech seeds took a little longer to sprout. In both cases, those without heat did better than those with heat, especially in the low-tech plastic. Those in the high-tech sponges got their second set of leaves a day or so before the low tech and in general, looked a little stronger. After they sprouted, I watered with a highly diluted fertilizer. Fifteen days after the seeds were planted I transplanted the high-tech sprouts into cell-packs.  Getting the tender sprouts out Roots-through-spongeof the sponges was at times a little tricky. Rather than pull the seedlings I had to cut around the sponge, and I often planted part of the sponge with the seedling, being sure to bury the sponge below the soil line. In the end I had 54 plants that I put back under grow lights until they could get over transplant shock.

 

36-hour-seedlings
Perking up 33 hours after transplant.

For this experiment I used Marvel of Four Seasons (Lactuca sativa), a butter-head lettuce described as “delicious and tender, very easy to grow.”  Once these are strong enough and I can reclaim my grow lights I am planning to try several other varieties including iceberg, which is difficult to grow in North Carolina, and Tennis, a small-head heirloom variety I couldn’t resist.

Best lesson learned: The optimum temperature for lettuce germination is 75 degrees. The low-tech chicken container was less-insulated than the high-tech dome and none of the seeds emerged, but germination in the high-tech container was high with or without heat.

Here’s where you can find some additional information on growing lettuce:

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/lettuce

https://extension.psu.edu/seed-and-seedling-biology

http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-1061/ANR-1061.pdf

http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs/ho/ho56/ho56.htm

 

My Pea-Popping Experiment

by Kathryn Hamilton, EMGV

If I had my way, I’d have something growing in my garden every day of the year. In the glory that was last year’s gardening season I seeded my snow peas on January 31. But with a low of 19° this January 31, which followed single-digit temps earlier in the month, there was no way that on January 31 my soil was50 degrees soil for peas going to reach the 40° necessary for pea germination. Although the soil would heat up by mid-February, by my calculations I’d lost two weeks.

But it  didn’t have to happen. Just a week later, contrary to everything I’d read, I learned, in a class on spring veggies held at the NC Botanical Garden, that you can begin peas indoors and gain three weeks on the growing season. If this information were to prove true, I could capture all the time I had lost and maybe then some.

I tested the theory by wrapping 10 seeds in a moist paper towel and placing it in a perforated plastic bag which I set on a heat pad. At a temperature of 38° peas should germinate in 21 – 30 days. At 65 – 70° they should begin to sprout in 7 – 14 days.

The first sprout, a little white tail, which is actually the root,

pea tail
The first sprout is actually the root.

popped in about five days. By the eighth day I had eight sprouting peas, although two had rotted. Six of these went into a six-pack which was placed in a domed container, on a heat pad, under a grow light.

The same day, I also planted peas directly in the garden. It was a 70° day following a five-day stretch that had also been in the seventies, and the soil temperature had reached 50 degrees. It rained that day, and rain was forecast for the rest of the week. Of course, peas don’t like it too soggy, either.

For the next part of the experiment I will seed two different varieties of snap peas directly into potting soil, and try growing them over heat and under a dome. At the same time, I’ll subject the same two varieties to the paper-towel / plastic bag / heat treatment and see which peas win the race.

 

Two days under the dome
Sprouted seeds after two days.
Pease under the dome
Growing under plastic from a grocery-store, take-out chicken.

According to North Carolina State University, peas can be started anyplace between January 31 and April 15. You want to pick them before the temperature gets above 80° and the peas become tough and bitter. If you are doing succession gardening, you’ll also want to start them early enough so they can be replaced by another early-season veggie, perhaps yellow beans or squash. When my peas are done, I’m planning to replace them with cukes, and green and yellow beans. And one way or another, I expect to be picking snow peas the first week in May. Stay tuned.

 

 

Is Grafting the Secret to Success with Heirlooms?

by Marty Fisher, EMGV

“But tomatoes are supposed to be red!” my father used to insist, upon seeing our harvest of gorgeous heirlooms–in hues of black, green, orange, yellow, striped, even blue!

Gradually, red tomatoes had become passe in our garden. We reveled in the different tastes and textures and the beautiful multicolored mason jars lining our shelves at the end of every growing season.

tomato types poster.JPG

And then disaster struck. One year, one by one, apparently healthy, robust plants would wither and die overnight. We were devastated! All of the literature had warned of the blight–late blight, early blight, wilt–it didn’t matter what you called it, once it hit, there was nothing you could do but wait and hope for survivors.

We learned that we should have been rotating our crop every year. But that’s hard to do given the size of our city garden and the massive cage my husband had build to protect our precious fruits from squirrels.

We tried fungicide–the natural kind and the nasty copper stuff. We also increased space between plants, washed our hands when we handled the plants, removed the lower leaves, and mulched the plants with straw to keep contaminated soil from splashing onto them. We even moved the tomatoes–and their massive cage–over a few rows. All of these efforts yielded some success, but we still lost plants every season. I could hardly stand to go out to the garden for fear of finding that another beautiful heirloom, loaded with fruit, had bitten the dust.

“You should plant disease-resistant tomatoes–red tomatoes,” said my father.

Grudgingly, we planted some Better Boys, some Big Beef, and some Celebrity. They were dependable and good tasting, but it just wasn’t the same. Even though I had enjoyed those popular varieties as a child, once I discovered heirlooms, there was no going back. Even the names of the heirlooms hinted at a time when tomatoes were cherished, traded among friends, and passed down from generation to generation–Dad’s Sunset, Amana Orange, Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Green Zebra.

Finally, last year, I discovered the art of grafting. It’s similar to what has been done with apples for years. You graft the top of an heirloom plant onto the root stock of an ancient, disease-resistant plant. When successful, the root-stock confers vigor and protects against disease. I successfully grafted four heirloom tomatoes last year. (I lost many more than that …) But the grafted plants produced all summer and well into fall. By October they were the sole survivors in a row of more than 20 black and withered plants. We picked and savored the last delicious fruits in early November.

tomato seedlings.JPG

This year I will try again. I hope to produce more grafted plants. Grafting is not easy–it involves planting about twice as many seeds as you normally would, cutting the top off perfectly healthy little seedlings, attaching them with special clips to the root stock, nurturing the traumatized plants in a dark “healing chamber,” and then gradually re-introducing them to the light.

I am no expert. I’m only a desperate tomato lover willing to try almost anything.

Follow my posts and I’ll let you know how it goes, with step-by-step instructions, equipment lists, online resources, and photos.

Additional Resources

This article is very general, but there is a link to a YouTube video that is fascinating and contains many more links about grafting.

This is a link to the video and the additional links.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WSwTCwlhFgo

Here is another excellent .pdf of a step-by-step article from Perdue University.