By Keith Hansen, Contributing Writer
Growing your own food is once again gaining in popularity and eating healthy is a hot topic these days. One of the foods frequently promoted for good health are blueberries. They are very high in antioxidants, which are considered important in helping prevent various diseases. Studies in both the laboratory and with humans have showed that blueberries can help maintain memory function, so I’m eating even more blueberries than ever! Other studies suggest that blueberries also help keep your heart healthy, improve digestive health and may help in preventing cancer. Eat more blueberries!
Besides their culinary and health benefits, blueberry plants can be quite attractive in the fall when their normally attractive blueish-green foliage turns into orange, red and purple hues, making them great options for an edible-landscape design.
If you are fortunate enough to live in East Texas, you probably have the right soils and climate to have some of these easy-to-grow and popular fruits. But, fear not, even if you don’t live east of Interstate 45, there are still ways you can grow your own blueberries.
Many blueberry species are native to North America, and growing the right ones is important for success. The best type for gardeners living in most of Texas are the rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium ashei), native to the southern United States. A mature, healthy rabbiteye blueberry plant can potentially produce 10 to 15 pounds of fruit per year!
If you are in the southeastern part of Texas, then southern highbush blueberries (hybrids of Vaccinium corymbosum, V. ashei and V. darrowii) are a possibility for you. These have a lower chilling requirement and bloom much earlier in the spring than rabbiteyes, which increases chances of a late freeze injury to the crop. According to Dr. David Creech, director of the Stephen F. Austin Gardens and longtime blueberry researcher, southern-highbush types tend to also have a much shorter lifespan than rabbiteyes. According to Dr. Creech, an option is to grow these under protected culture (windbreaks, mulches, row cover and the like) to limit freeze damage and also to avoid pest damage. The main advantage of growing Southern highbush blueberries is getting an early harvest, up to a month earlier than rabbiteyes.
Blueberries are relatively easy to grow if given the right growing conditions, variety selection and soil preparation. They have few pests, need little fertilization and therefore fit well in an organic or Earth-Kind garden. If you can grow azaleas, then you can grow blueberries (they are in the same Ericaceae family). Even if you live west of Interstate 45, you can still grow blueberries. However, they will need to be grown in raised beds or containers with an appropriate soil mix.
Varieties. Variety selection is important with any type of blueberry. Varieties vary in the time when they bloom (early bloomers can be damaged by a late-spring freeze), when they ripen and size of the fruit. Like many types of fruits, blueberries require a certain number of chilling hours to satisfy their dormancy requirement. Varieties with very low chilling requirements are often the ones that bloom early and are damaged by late freezes. These varieties would be best suited for those living in the southern part of Texas.
Some of the more common and time-tested rabbiteye varieties recommended for most of Texas include ‘Brightwell,’ ‘Alapaha,’ ‘Austin,’ ‘Premier,’ ‘Vernon,’ ‘Powderblue’ and ‘Tifblue.’ For best production and to maximize fruit set, you should plant two different blueberry varieties. ‘Austin’ and ‘Premier’ will work with ‘Brightwell,’ ‘Alapaha’ and ‘Vernon.’ ‘Brightwell’ works well with ‘Tifblue’ and ‘Powderblue.’ And ‘Alapaha’ works well with ‘Vernon’ and ‘Premier.’ ‘Brightwell’ and ‘Tifblue’ are somewhat self-fruitful but will produce better with another variety for cross pollination.
A recent novelty rabbiteye variety recently released by the USDA is called ‘Pink Lemonade,’ and indeed it bears bright-pink blueberries which are surprisingly sweet.
Flowers and Pollination. The attractive urn or bell-shaped, whitish-pink blueberry flowers hang upside down in clusters. They do require insect pollination, which is carried out by various native solitary bees, honeybees and bumblebees. Carpenter bees will cut a slit near the base of the flower to obtain their nectar.
Planting. Winter through early spring is an optimal time to plant blueberries, whether bare-root or container-grown plants. One of the most common mistakes is to plant blueberries too deep. They have a very fine, fibrous root system and usually do not recover if planted too deep. Therefore, plant them (if bare-root) no deeper than they originally grew in containers or in the field.
All blueberries require acidic soils and do best in the pH range of 4.5–5.5. Have your soil tested by a reliable soil-testing lab before committing to a major blueberry planting.
Containers, Raised Beds
If the pH of your soil is higher (more alkaline) than the ideal range, then consider growing them in raised beds or containers filled with a mix of peat moss/partially composted pine bark (marketed as pine-bark fines). A 1/4 or 1/3 peat and 3/4 or 2/3 finely ground composted pine bark would be a good ratio. If creating a raised bed, make it about two feet tall and three to four feet wide. If growing in individual containers, the bigger the better. Some growers say a pot as small as 15 gallons may be large enough. Dr. Creech recommends using at least 30-gallon containers, and I agree — the larger, the better.
Good drainage is critical, and therefore sandy soils work best for blueberries. If you are stuck with poorly drained clay soils, then create raised beds or grow in containers. Even in sandy soils, work in lots of organic matter, using the ratio mentioned previously before planting. Commercially, the recommended rate is 180 cubic yards per acre of the peat/pine bark, with 1/2 tilled in and 1/2 on top of the rows. Plant rabbiteye blueberries about four to six feet apart so they will have plenty of room to fill in and grow to their mature size.
Fertilizing and Watering. Blueberry roots are sensitive to fertilizers, so care must be taken to not apply too much at any one time. New plantings should not be fertilized until the plants are well-established and putting on vigorous new growth. If new plants don’t put on vigorous growth the first year, wait until next year to fertilize. I would suggest using products specifically formulated for blueberries or azaleas. Lightly apply granular fertilizers around the entire plant at the rate recommended for these products (usually about an ounce per plant) but avoid getting the fertilizer in the crown of the plant.
Blueberry plants are sensitive to drought, so pay close attention to soil moisture, especially the first year. You should not keep the soil saturated nor let the soil totally dry out, especially during the summer and when the plants are loaded with fruit. Sandy soils should be watered lightly and frequently. The fine blueberry roots generally grow very near the surface, so deep irrigation is not necessary. Soils that tend to hold more water should be watered less often. Check soil moisture with your fingers or a reliable soil-moisture meter. If you use a drip system for watering, run lines down both sides of the row or circle each plant to evenly distribute water to the entire root zone.
Water quality is especially important to growing healthy plants. Even if you have acidic garden soil or potting medium, a highly alkaline water source can reduce plant vigor and production. If your irrigation water has high salinity or sodium (Na) levels (greater than 50 ppm Na), then you will need to find another option for keeping your plants watered. Rainwater harvesting is a good option, as is collecting air conditioning condensate. If your collection capacity is not very high and likely to run out during summer heat and dry spells, then stretch your resources by diluting and blending your tap water with collected water. Of course, this is only practical if you just have a few plants.
Mulch. Applying a layer of organic mulch on the surface of the soil is a key ingredient in successful blueberry production. Mulches reduce water loss from soil due to evaporation and they add organic matter as they decompose, plus they help keep the planting bed free of weeds. Pine straw, shredded leaves or wood chips work well. Do not use manures or animal bedding as they are high in salts.
Pests. Probably the biggest pest threats to your blueberry crop are birds, who relish the fruit as much as we do. Invest in some bird netting and cover your plants before they start ripening. Scare tactics like eyeball balloons and plastic owls may help, but once birds get a taste, they will brave the “dangers.”
Harvest. Blueberries do not ripen all at once on a bush, and a cluster of fruit will have various stages of ripeness. Blueberries also do not get any sweeter after harvesting, so you need to pick them as they ripen on the bush. For best quality and maximum ripeness, pick berries that are entirely blue with no hint of red. Ideally, they should easily release without resistance by gently rolling the fruit off the stem into your hand. Harvest time may last up to six weeks!
What to do with your bountiful harvest? There are so many ways to enjoy these delicious fruits, whether fresh on pancakes, cereal or in a fruit compote, or baked in pies, breads and other pastries. They are great in smoothies, eaten with yogurt and even added to salads. If I have more than I can consume before they start going bad, I simply spread them dry on a baking pan, stick the pan in the freezer for a day or two, and then put them in a freezer bag to keep in the freezer for later use. They’re pretty good just eating them frozen right out of the bag.
For more details on rabbiteye blueberry cultivars and their culture, check out the “Rabbiteye Blueberries” publication on the Aggie Horticulture website (https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/fruit-nut/files/2015/04/blueberries_2015.pdf).
While researching for this article, I ran across an interesting recipe using blueberries that the early pilgrims learned from Native Americans. It’s called Sautauthig, which is a pudding or mush made out of dried, ground-up blueberries mixed with cornmeal, honey and water. I confess I have not tried it. One of our favorite ways of using blueberries in baking is blueberry cornbread. Here’s the recipe my wife Debbi uses:
1 cup self-rising flour (or 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and 1/4 teaspoon baking powder)
1 cup cornmeal
1 Tablespoon oil
1 Tablespoon vanilla
3/4 cup sugar (brown sugar is better)
1 cup milk
1 cup blueberries sprinkled on top
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray PAM in an oven-proof skillet or baking dish. Put skillet or dish in oven to heat it (about 3 minutes). Set blueberries aside. Mix all other ingredients in a bowl. Pour mix into hot skillet/dish. Then sprinkle the blueberries on top. Cover skillet/dish tightly and bake 35–40 minutes until done in center. Delicious with butter and honey drizzled on top.