One of summer’s loveliest sights is a massive blueberry plant heavy with berries which are plump, juicy, and as blue as the thumb of an I-10 hitchhiker in January. And one of the best ways to spend a summer afternoon is picking – and eating – those blue, tasty berries.
In most instances, the U-pick blueberry farms are the way most Floridians experience the joy of picking blueberries. However, many others are harvesting blueberries from plants growing in their own backyards, or perhaps among other landscape plants in the front yard.
The rabbiteye blueberry is a handsome plant which is native to north Florida. It is remarkably well adapted to the climate in the northern part of the state, and to a lesser extent, in central Florida.
For areas south of Ocala and north of Sebring, the southern highbush blueberry is a better choice than the rabbiteye. The southern highbush requires less cold weather. All blueberries require at least some cold temperatures to produce fruit, so they often don’t do well south of Sebring.
Blueberries are easy to care for and are bothered little by heat, humidity, disease or pests.
The best time to plant blueberries is mid-December through mid-February. Now is an excellent time to begin planning and taking steps that will help you to be successful.
First, determine where you are going to plant your blueberries. You will need space for at least two plants because it takes two to produce fruit (cross pollinate). The more sun your planting site receives, the bigger the berries your plants will produce.
Allow at least a seven-foot by seven-foot area for each rabbiteye, and an area that measures about four-foot by four-foot for each southern highbush. For a hedgerow effect, space southern highbush plants three feet apart, or about five feet apart for rabbiteye plants.
Soil pH is the factor with the most impact on blueberry success in Florida. A pH range of 4.5 to 5.5 is optimum. Now is the perfect time to test the pH of the soil where you intend to plant your blueberries. Early action is best because it takes three or four months for the soil pH to change even after amendments have been made to it.
A soil test is simple and inexpensive, generally costing $10 or less. Contact your county’s cooperative extension office for details.
Peat moss or pine bark is often used to increase soil organic matter when planting blueberries at home. Rabbiteye blueberries like at least one percent organic matter; southern highbush blueberries need closer to three percent organic matter in the soil to thrive.
Peat moss and pine bark may be incorporated into the soil at planting. Incorporate about 1/4 to 1/2 cubic foot of peat moss, or a mix of peat moss and pine bark, into the planting hole. Pine bark is also excellent mulch for blueberries. It should be three inches deep and spread at least two feet in all directions around each plant. Water should drain well. Blueberries don’t like their roots to remain saturated.
Blueberries respond well to frequent, light fertilization.
There are many established rabbiteye blueberry cultivars to choose from and others which are new to the market. The mid to late season varieties are the best choice because they are less impacted by late spring frosts. The harvest season for rabbiteyes ranges from May to July, depending on the variety. Southern highbush are the earliest blueberries to ripen in the country, ripening as early as February.