Do you love blueberries? Now through early spring is the perfect time to begin your own blueberry patch. Blueberries are easy to maintain, do not have thorns and will not take over the garden. Rabbiteye and Highbush blueberries are originally native to South Georgia, northern Florida and southern Alabama. Today, they are the number 1 fruit produced in Georgia, beating the peach, with blueberries valued at over $220 million.

Leading the pack in production is Bacon County at $60 million dollars in production. Isn’t it odd that a county named Bacon produces blueberries? Coffee county is another one of those oddly named counties that also produces many blueberries.

The USDA and Dr. Tom Brightwell started a breeding program in Tifton, Georgia in the 1940s, and blueberries steadily developed in the 1950s and 60s. Two varieties (Rabbiteye and Highbush) were produced from native American plants. Highbush blueberries are self-fertile, but cross-pollination results in larger berries. Rabbiteye blueberries require more than one other variety for cross-pollination. If planting for your home garden, it is best to plant varieties together that bloom at the same time. Blueberry bees, polyester bees and other small bees pollinate blueberries. UGA has published several charts, similar to Table 1, that give flowering dates for some varieties.

Choosing your variety is very important. Rabbiteye blueberry bushes are the best for our area (zone 7b). Although there are three different varieties (highbush, lowbush and Rabbiteye), Rabbiteyes are better for our area. Rabbiteye blueberries need more heat (which we have), but also grow the fastest. They may grow up to 10 feet tall. Most local nurseries carry blueberry plants this time of year. To speed up your enjoyment, buy a tree that is two or three years old.

If you manage your blueberries well, they should produce some fruit the second or third year after transplanting. However, some horticulturists recommend trimming your blueberries the first two years so more nutrients can be directed into plant growth.

Blueberries require a natural pH between 4.0 and 5.0. Mulching with pine bark is recommended since pine bark is naturally acidic. Make sure you do a soil test on the area to determine its pH prior to planting. Do not add fertilizer at planting time. After the plants are established and new growth emerges, apply 2 ounces of azalea fertilizer (4.8.8) per plant and follow with the same amount in May and July. Do not place the fertilizer at the base of the plant, but spread it evenly around the plant as one would a tree.

Plant your blueberries approximately 4 feet apart, and plant those with similar bloom times together. After your blueberries have been in the ground a few years, you may want to prune them. You can share with the birds or add bird netting to your bushes. Just remember, that having a ten-foot blueberry bush makes that difficult.

How do you know when they are ready to eat? Put your hand under the blueberry clumps -any ripe ones will fall into your hand. Many you-pick farms pick this way, but some of the larger commercial operations use large harvesting machines. These shake each plant to dislodge the ripe berries which then fall into a catch bin.

So many of our foods have become more important as sources of vitamins,

and blueberries are

no exception. These have iron, fiber and Vitamin C. Blueberries have been known to help reduce cholesterol, and research indicates that blueberries help protect us against chronic diseases. Master Gardeners recently planted three blueberry bushes (three different varieties) in our Community Garden, and we want to plant at least three more. We look forward to a time when we can pick and eat!

Marjorie Stansel is a UGA Douglas County Master Gardener Extension Volunteer. Additional information/publications on gardening can be found at the University of Georgia’s Extension website, http://extension.uga.edu/. In addition, the local UGA Douglas County Extension office is available to assist uge2097@uga.edu or 770-920-7224.