Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Horticulture News
Blueberries - A Northern Favorite Moves South
Blueberry pie, blueberry muffins, fresh blueberries over vanilla ice cream . . . . Does thinking about this delectable fruit have you in a blue funk - thinking about all the blueberry delights you have missed since coming to Florida? The magnificent mild climate that has drawn many of us to south Florida and allows gardeners to produce such an astonishing profusion of fruits, flowers, and vegetables is a disadvantage when it comes to producing many of the deciduous fruit that are so familiar up north. Most deciduous fruit cultivars such as apples, blueberries, cherries, pears and peaches have too great a chilling requirement to grow well in Florida. To flower and fruit successfully, they require more exposure to cool temperatures during the winter than they are likely to experience locally.
Our winters are typically short and mild with intermittent periods of warm temperatures. With insufficient chilling, most deciduous fruits do not flower and leaf out satisfactorily during the spring. Growth can be weak and erratic. Now however, thanks to plant breeders at the University of Florida and elsewhere a number of low-chill cultivars of some deciduous fruits, including blueberry, have been developed. The greatest accomplishment in this area has been with blueberries and there are now successful plantings of blueberries in LaBelle and Immokalee.
Two types of blueberries grow well in Florida, the rabbiteye ( Vaccinium ashei ) and southern highbush (interspecific hybrids of V. darrowi , V. ashei and V. corymbosum ). Rabbiteye blueberries grow well in areas of northern parts of the state while southern highbush cultivars are well adapted to areas south of Ocala and have been grown successfully as far south as Immokalee. Florida blueberries come in at a time when no other place on earth is in production (April -May) and provides commercial producers with a unique market window when blueberry prices may reach ten dollars or more per pound.
Success with blueberries at home starts with proper cultivar selection. "Gulf Coast", "Misty", and "Sharpblue" are three varieties that are proven producers locally. Blueberries require cross pollination so it is important plant a mix of two or more cultivars together to get good crops of berries. The best time to plant blueberries is from mid December to mid February, although containerized plants can be successfully planted at any time with proper care. Plant in a sunny area away from the roots of trees except pines, and at least 20 feet away from any building foundation.
Blueberries require fairly specific soil conditions for success. Blueberries require a soil pH of 4.0 to 5.5. At higher soil pH values, micro elements such as iron and zinc become deficient. Deficiency symptoms develop on new growth and plants lose vigor. Since southern highbush blueberries thrive on acid soils which contain more organic matter than is usually found in local soils, they are generally heavily mulched with pine bark which will eventually decompose and add to the soil organic matter and help lower soil pH.. Organic matter can also be added to soils by incorporating peat moss or compost prior to planting. Where blueberry plants have been heavily mulched for several years, it is not uncommon to observe most of the fibrous roots growing in the decomposed litter above the natural soil.
Soil can be acidified by thoroughly mixing a small amount of granulated sulfur into the soil several months before planting and then at intervals as necessary. Ten pounds of sulfur per 1000 sq. ft. will lower soil pH approximately on point on the pH scale. Many fertilizers are acid forming and will gradually lower the soil pH. A soil test should be taken determine the soil pH and whether or not acidification of the soil is necessary.
Blueberries require a well drained soils. Where water stands within 18 inches of the soil surface for prolonged periods during the rainy season, blueberries should be planted on raised beds. If blueberry roots are exposed to water saturated soil for more than a few days damage from Phytophthora root rot may become severe. Generally, blueberries will grow well where hibiscus, ixora and other "acid loving" plants are proven performers.
A number of insects, diseases, and vertebrate pests can attack blueberries in commercial fields. However, most are sporadic in occurrence and normally cause little damage in small plantings. For more information on blueberry production, contact the Hendry County Extension Office. Small blueberry plantings in the dooryard provide both food and cover for many attractive songbirds.
If you think you might like to have blueberries in April, but don't think you can wait for your own bushes to come into production, you might want to check out Bee Branch Blueberries at 3200 Howard Road in North LaBelle, which is open to the public and produces luscious blueberries and blackberries. Good luck and good gardening.
Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service. Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975, e-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598. You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle. Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.
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