In all North Florida Counties, blueberry jam, blueberry cobbler and fresh blueberries seem to be a staple. This is because there are many home gardeners are able to consistently grow a top quality product. This year blueberries are very large already on plants throughout the panhandle! The increased size may be indicating earlier maturity than in the previous few years.
Backyard gardeners also desire to grow the same type of blueberries grown by local farmers but sometimes struggle to find the correct type. Vaccinium ashei (commonly known as rabbit-eye blueberry) is a species of blueberry native to Florida and adapted to the late frosts we sometimes get in Northwest Florida during the months of February and March. It is recommended that this species be grown in this area, not its sister species the Southern Highbush, Vaccinium darrowii. There are several dwarf cultivars of Vaccinium darrowii that can be used to great effect in the landscape, but will not produce a noticeable crop of fruit most years.
The rabbit-eye blueberry is a deciduous shrub growing to 3 to 6 feet tall and with up to a 3 foot spread. The leaves start out red-bronze that turn dark-green when fully developed. It has small, white bell-shaped flowers. It produces 5 mm diameter fruit, dark blue to black, with a pale gray wax coating.
Rabbet-eyes are self-infertile, meaning that they must have two or more varieties to pollinate each other. Therefore it is advisable to plant two or more cultivars close together to ensure complete fruit set. Recommended cultivars for our area include, ‘Brightwell’,’ Climax’, ‘Beckyblue’, ‘Tif-Blue’, Powderblue, ‘Woodard’, ‘Chaucer’ and ‘Bluegem’. Old, local plants can be found in gardens and in the woods, due to the fact that the WPA planted them under pines in the 1930s. These can easily be propagated by cuttings or by nicking and burying a lax stem under soil for a few month. Once the stem forms roots, it can be severed from the mother plant and transplanted.
Blueberries grow best on acid soil at a pH of 4.0 to 5.2. Few pests and diseases bother them, with the exception of scale, whitefly and mealybug. These are controlled with a combination of dormant oil sprays, and insecticidal soap.
Blueberries enjoy soil rich in organic matter and benefit to liberal applications of pine bark mulch. Their roots are fairly weak and should not be planted near turf or other weeds which may out-compete them in the race for water and nutrients. Mulching eliminates this grass and weed competition. In soil where organic matter is very low, such as in coastal sand hills, gardeners should grow blueberries in 2 foot deep trenches filled with rotting pine bark. Blueberries enjoy being spoon fed fertilizer, since heavy fertilizer doses stop fruit set and may damage fragile root systems.
When planting, it is advisable to not include fertilizer in the planting hole. “Blueberry Special” fertilizer mixes are available which are made up of ammoniacal or urea based nitrogen sources, with an analysis of 12-4-8 and 2% magnesium. This mixture is available at many local feed and garden stores. New plants should get one ounce per application in April, June, August and October. 2 year plants should receive 2 ounces per application and older plants should receive 3 ounces per application. Fertilizer should be spread in a circle 2-4 feet in diameter around the plant for optimal root uptake. It does no good to just pour the fertilizer at the plant base, since feeder root are further out from the plant.
Feel free to contact your UF IFAS extension agent for more information about blueberry cultivation