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Growing Blueberries: Vaccinium

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Overview
A member of the Heath family which includes Azaleas. The genus Vaccinium (Blueberry) comprises 37 species plus hybrids. A few of these are used in commercial fruit production.
Two types of blueberry are appropriate for fruit production in warm climates: Southern Highbush Blueberry, a collective name for Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) hybrids with various southern blueberry species; and Rabbiteye Blueberry (Vaccinium ashei).
Southern Highbush blueberries are larger, have thinner skin, are juicier, and ripen about a month sooner than Rabbiteye.
Rabbiteye are sweeter but have thicker skin which gets tougher after freezing. Rabbiteye shrubs are more drought tolerant, more tolerant of higher pH ranges (5.5-6.5), and less prone to disease than Southern Highbush shrubs. But Rabbiteye grows to be a monster 20' high shrub unless hedge trimmed or grown in a container.
"Wild" blueberries are from the Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), which grows in northeastern North America from Canada to Virginia.

Description
Form: Shrub.
Lifespan: 20-50 years.
Leaf retention: Semi-evergreen or deciduous, based on length of time before dropped leaves are regrown.
Growth rate: Moderate.
Mature Size: 6-8' high and as wide is typical for Southern Highbush in the ground but can get higher depending on cultivar. In containers, 4' high is typical for dwarf varieties.
Flowers: White to pink, small, waxy, hanging lantern shaped, clustered.
Bloom: Late winter or spring.
Self-fruitful: Depends on cultivar. A different cultivar is needed for pollination or for maximum yield even when self-fruitful.
Years before fruiting: None, but all flower buds should be removed the first two or three years so that the plant can spend its energy developing roots instead of fruit.
Fruit: Spherical shape, dark blue skin, edible. Tiny seeds.
Months for fruit to ripen: 2.
Storage after harvest: Place in sealed glass or plastic container without washing and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. Washing causes blueberries to last no more than 5 days in a refrigerator even when dried on a paper towel. Frozen blueberries will last up to one year.
Leaves: Green, smooth edges, oval with pointed tip to broadly lance shaped.
Stems: No thorns. New canes (main branches) grow from the root crown.
Roots: Shallow, mostly within top 7" of soil, weak.
Cultivars of Note: for regions with hot summers
'Bountiful Blue' USDA zones 6-10, 150 chill hours, compact growth, self-fruitful but best with another cultivar for cross-pollination
'Misty' USDA zones 5-10, 300 chill hours, self-fruitful
'Sharpblue' USDA zones 7-10, 200 chill hours, self-fruitful
'Sunshine Blue' USDA zones 5-10, 150 chill hours, compact growth, self-fruitful
Wildlife: Attracts bees, birds. Berries must often be netted to avoid bird predation.
Toxic / Danger: No.
Origin: North America. Most commercially grown food crop species originated on the east coast.

Cultivation and Uses
USDA hardiness zones: 5-10, depending on cultivar.
Sunset climate zones: 25-26, 28, 31, 33.
Chill hours: 150 and up, depending on cultivar.
Heat tolerant: Yes.
Sun: Full sun in the morning, afternoon shade in USDA zones 9-10.
Drought tolerant: No.
Water after becoming established: Daily. Never let the soil dry out entirely. Make sure container drains well. Blueberries are "calcifuges", very sensitive to calcium or sodium salts in water, which desert water sources are prone to. Collected rainwater is best.
Soil: Well drained, high in organic content, pH 4.0-5.5 (very strongly acidic). Blueberries must be grown in large containers, in regions with alkaline soils, to maintain soil acidity. If plants show nutrient deficiency, it is usually because the pH is too high. For residential gardening, soil should be composed of 50% aged compost and 50% sand. Premium potting soil without nitrates or ground pine bark (not wood) are often used in place of aged compost.
Fertilize: Use fertilizers without nitrates formulated for acid-loving plants. Nitrates will kill the plant. Azalea and rhododendron fertilizers work well.
Mulch: Spread organic material 3" high around the plant but keep it one foot away from the root crown. This will reduce heat stress and water loss.
Planting: Locate the plant where it will get full sun and good air circulation. Use a 20-24" diameter container.
First Year Care: Do not fertilize during or after planting until new growth has started.
Prune: In early winter, remove all dead wood and low-growing branches which are more prone to disease. Berries grow on one year and older wood. Cut off short shoots that have fewer leaf and flower buds to open the plant out. If done properly, 50-75% of flower buds will be removed so that the plant will have fewer fruit and can grow them to a larger size. The oldest canes (vertical branches growing from the root crown) are the largest in diameter and produce less fruit after six years. After six years, start removing the oldest (largest diameter) canes but not more than one-sixth of all canes. Cut them at ground level just above the root crown. On average, you will be removing only one or two canes, all six years old.
Litter: Moderate. Keep the area around the plant free of fallen leaves, branches and fruit to prevent fungal diseases.
Propagation: Cuttings.
Uses: Edible fruit, ornamental, bird garden.

Comments
Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), grown in cold northern climates, provides the largest portion of the North American blueberry crop.



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