Get It Growing: Try rabbiteye blueberries

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(Photo by Allen Owings) Who can resist a bowl of delicious blueberries?

Blueberries are one of the easiest-to-grow fruiting plants for home landscapes, and research indicates that they have all kinds of health benefits. Here in Louisiana we plant the native rabbiteye blueberry, Vaccinium ashei. A number of rabbiteye blueberry varieties are available, and all are Louisiana Super Plant selections for fall 2014.

Rabbiteye blueberry is the first fruiting plant to be named a Louisiana Super Plant selection. A variety of outstanding characteristics are the reason why. The bushes are relatively compact and do not occupy large amounts of space. And they are attractive and generally don’t require a lot of spraying for insect and disease control. These characteristics make blueberries ideal for edible landscaping – incorporating food-producing plants seamlessly into the landscape design.

In the landscape, blueberries are neat, attractive shrubs that can serve as hedges, privacy screens or background plantings for beds. They also can be used in masses or as focal points in the landscape. They are adaptable to growing in containers, making it possible for people without a yard to grow blueberries on balconies, decks, porches and patios.

The foliage of rabbiteye blueberries is an appealing blue-green and often turns to brilliant shades of orange and red in the fall. Blueberries are semi-deciduous and generally drop a portion of their leaves over the winter.

The small, urn-shaped white flowers that appear in spring are not especially showy, but they cluster along the branches prettily and provide nectar and pollen to bees and other insects. The fruit that follows adds visual interest as it changes color toward ripening through the season.

The native origins of rabbiteye blueberry varieties means they are well-adapted to both the soil and the climate of Louisiana. That said, blueberries are native to areas where the soil is quite acid, and your soil must be acidic enough to be successful with them. Blueberries are acid-loving plants that grow best in soil that has a pH between 4.5 and 5.5.

To understand this, a little soil science is in order. The pH scale, which runs from 1 to 14, is used to indicate the degree of acidity or alkalinity of soil. A pH of 7.0 is neutral, a pH above 7.0 is alkaline and any value below that is acidic. The acidity or alkalinity of soil has a significant effect on the availability of the mineral nutrients that plants need. If the pH is too high, acid-loving plants like blueberries are not able to absorb from the soil enough of some of the minerals they need, such as iron.

Before considering blueberries for your landscape, it is best to determine the pH of your soil. Contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office about getting your soil tested. You may also pick up a soil-testing box from your local nursery or garden center. Take soil samples according to the directions in the box, and mail it to the AgCenter Soil Testing and Plant Analysis Lab. Not only will you learn the pH of the soil, but you will also see the levels of several important mineral nutrients. This information is valuable when deciding which fertilizers to use.

If you soil is not acid enough, you can lower the pH by incorporating finely ground sulfur into the soil of the area where the bushes will be planted. In areas of the state where the pH is above 7, you may have more success growing blueberries in containers.

You need to plant more than one variety of rabbiteye blueberries for cross-pollination. Rabbiteye blueberries are self-sterile – they won’t pollinate themselves – and cross-pollination is necessary for fruit set. The pollinating variety has no influence on fruit yield or quality, and all varieties will cross pollinate each other as long as bloom times overlap.

To spread out the harvest season, it is a good idea to select early, mid- and late-season varieties. Varieties that ripen earliest include Austin, Brightwell, Climax, Premier and Woodard. Midseason varieties are Bluebelle, Briteblue, Chaucer, Powderblue and Tifblue. The latest-ripening varieties are Baldwin, Centurion, Choice and Delite.

Fall or winter planting works best because it gives the plants an opportunity to become established before the stressful heat of summer. Be sure to order early if you plan to mail order bare root plants from a specialty nursery so your plants will arrive in time for winter transplanting. Container-grown plants can typically be purchased from local nurseries for fall or winter planting.

The standard spacing for rabbiteye blueberries is 6 feet between plants. If blueberries are being planted to create a privacy screen or hedge, plant the bushes 4 feet apart in the row. If developing individual specimen plants, use a spacing of 8 to 10 feet between the bushes.

Locate your blueberry plantings in locations that receive at least a half a day of sun, but sun all day will produce the best harvests. Blueberries are intolerant of wet, poorly drained soils. Make sure you plant them in areas that drain well where standing water does not persist after a rain.

Finally, rabbiteye blueberry varieties are Louisiana Super Plants selections because they are relatively low-maintenance. When it comes to blueberries, you get a lot of return for the effort. Blueberry plants typically have very few insect or disease problems, and pesticides are rarely needed in home gardens. And blueberries do not need extensive annual pruning.

Louisiana Super Plants selections are promoted every spring and fall by the LSU AgCenter in cooperation with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. They are exceptional choices for your landscape with proven track records in Louisiana’s unique climate. For more information on Louisiana Super Plants, go to www.lsuagcenter.com/superplants. Click on “Where to Find Super Plants” to find participating retail nurseries near you.

Dan Gill is a horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter. He can be reached at DGill@agcenter.lsu.edu