There are several varieties of blueberry that grow well in Northeast Florida, but there still not easy to maintain. Fortunately, farms where you can pick your own berries are starting to open for the season.
These days, blueberries are a standard Florida fruit, with commercial production coming in several weeks ahead of any other state. But it was not always this way.
From the late 1800s until its decline in the roaring ’20s, wild blueberries were harvested; these came late in the season and were much smaller than the berries we enjoy today. Eventually that system became an unprofitable venture and it wasn’t until 1976 that the nascent blueberry breeding program at the University of Florida released the first improved southern highbush cultivar, which was a cross between the northern highbush with our native Vaccinium sp.
Since then numerous cultivars have been produced for specific goals, including lower chill requirements, better disease resistance and improved fruit characteristics. Now, in our region these southern highbush blueberries often start flowering prior to the last freeze, so care needs to be taken to protect them if a late freeze occurs.
More often, in our region another type of blueberry is grown known as rabbiteye blueberries. There are plenty of improved cultivars of rabbiteye blueberries available these days as well, and they generally bloom later, thereby avoiding crop losses from most freezes.
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Before you go and grab your shovel, though, keep in mind that blueberries have some specific site requirements. Blueberry bushes need full sun, acidic soils (pH between 4.0-5.5) and, ideally, high organic matter (in the 2-3% range). Before you plant one, get a soil test conducted; most residential areas have a higher pH than this range and the plants will not perform well in such sites.
If you find your pH is too high, amendments of elemental sulfur can reduce the pH but it will take several months for those biological processes to occur. Reach out to your extension office for specifics on recommended application rates.
Beyond all of those considerations, to be honest, the ideal time to plant blueberries is in the late fall through winter. Take your time, prepare the site now, identify a source for your choice of blueberry cultivar and plant it towards the end of this year. Keep in mind as well, many blueberries will require another cultivar with a similar blooming period to produce, and even those labeled as self-fertile will usually produce more with cross pollination.
If you don’t already have blueberries planted in your yard it’s going to take three to four years before new plants start yielding any significant amount of berries. In fact, for the first two years, it’s generally recommended to remove the blooms/berries prior to fruit set to allow the plant to divert all of its resources towards vegetative growth. In the long run, such a tactic will afford you better production.
However, don’t worry, there are many U-Pick operations available in our area with a few already with berries ready and fresh for the picking. U-Pick offers a great way to get outside (socially distant!) and get the highest quality products at very reasonable prices. Don’t be shy about harvesting too many, either; blueberries can easily be preserved in jams or frozen whole to be enjoyed at a later date. We personally really enjoy snacking on frozen blueberries during the heat of summer.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has a U-Pick farm locator for all sorts of crops, check it out at www.fdacs.gov/Consumer-Resources/Buy-Fresh-From-Florida/U-Pick-Farms.
A list of recommended southern highbush cultivars can be found at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/hs1245 and a blueberry gardener’s guide can be found at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg359. The latter document will discuss many relevant cultural and pest/disease related issues.
Have more horticulture questions? Feel free to reach out to the Master Gardener Volunteers at your local county extension office. Contact information for your county can be found at sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/find-your-local-office/.
Chris Kerr is an environmental horticulture agent with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS.