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/

 

 

 

To Do in October

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

Well, wasn’t September fun?! Dry, wet, dry, OMG wet. Heartfelt sympathies to those who suffered loss by Florence. For those of us whose gardens were only moderately affected (or not at all) here is the October calendar.

Fertilizing
Not much to do here unless you are planting spring flowering bulbs. Should that be the case, incorporate a little balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 or equivalent) into the soil as you plant. Store any leftover fertilizer in a dry place for the winter.

Planting

  • The above-mentioned spring flowering bulbs (e.g. hyacinths, tulips, daffodils, crocuses, etc.).
  • Pansies! Those plucky members of the Viola genus who can brighten up a gray winter day should be on everyone’s list unless, of course, there are deer nearby.  Apparently, the pansies make a great dessert after a meal of azalea branches.  Plant them soon as the more established they are when it gets cold the better able they will be to withstand the cold.
  • “Fall is for planting.” It’s not just a slogan from the nursery industry. It is gospel. The very best time to plant any new landscape plants you have been planning is now.
  • Peonies can be planted or transplanted now.
  • In the vegetable garden consider a nitrogen fixing cover crop like red clover, hairy vetch or winter rye. This will help keep down the weeds and add nitrogen to the soil. In the spring just till it into the soil to add nutrients and organic matter.
  • If you happen to be one of the foresighted people who have a cold frame now is the appropriate time to plant a winter’s worth of salad. Lettuce, green onions, radishes, carrots, spinach and other leafy greens will grace your salad bowl all winter if planted now.

Pruning
Once frost (It’s October. It is going to frost!) has finished the decimation of the perennial garden cut off all the dead tops and throw them on the compost pile. Root prune any trees or plants you plan to move in the spring.

Spraying
Unless you have a lace bug problem, it is time to clean up and winterize the sprayer and store the pesticides in a secured, dry location that will not freeze. As for the lace bugs, they are active whenever the leaf surface temperature is warm enough (i.e. whenever the sun shines on the leaves). A horticultural oil spray can be helpful in controlling both feeding adults and egg stages.

Lawn Care
Maintain adequate moisture levels for any newly seeded or sodded lawns.  Avoid leaf buildup on lawns.

Tall fescue and bluegrass (not the fiddlin’ kind) can still be planted in October.

Propagation
Keep an eye on any new cuttings in the cold frame (the one without the salad greens in it). They should be checked at least twice a month and watered as needed.
If you are a gardener lucky enough to be able to grow rhubarb now is the time to dig and divide it.

Other stuff to do that will keep you outdoors while the leaves turn color:

  • Take soil samples while they are still FREE. NC Department of Agriculture will charge for them from November to April.
  • Put those raked 0r blown leaves into the compost bin or till them into the veggie garden.
  • Clean fill and put out the bird feeders.
  • Dig and store (cool, dark, dry) tender summer flowering bulbs (E.g. gladioli, dahlia, caladium) before frost.
  • Clean up lubricate and otherwise prepare lawn and garden equipment for its long winter’s rest.

A mea culpa. This writer neglected to inform you that it is time to band trees that are susceptible to canker worm invasions. This involves wrapping and securing the trunk with a coarse material like burlap or quilt batting about 4 or 5 feet above the ground. That in turn is wrapped with a corrugated paper wrap that is then covered with the stickiest gooeyest stuff you’ve ever played with. All these materials are available at some nursery/garden centers, one of which is very proximal to the Durham Cooperative Extension office.

For a fun activity now that will yield fresh living flowers in the bleak mid-winter try your hand at forcing spring flowering bulbs. Plant bulbs in pots early in October and place them in the refrigerator. In twelve weeks bring them out into the house and watch them grow and bloom. Kids love it.