From commercial farms to backyard bushes, blueberries thrive in North Carolina’s temperate climate. We chatted with Bill Cline, an extension plant pathologist at NC State University, to learn more about
From commercial farms to backyard bushes, blueberries thrive in North Carolina’s temperate climate. We chatted with Bill Cline, an extension plant pathologist at NC State University, to learn more about growing our own blueberries. Follow these tips to ensure a successful harvest of delicious summer fruit.
Highbush blueberries grow best in the mountains at elevations above 2,500 feet, but rabbiteye is the easiest type of blueberry to grow in most parts of the state, and is usually the preferred variety for homeowners and local markets. These berries begin to ripen in mid- to late June — Cline recommends planting your bush in the dormant season, around February or March.
If your planting site has a high clay content (lots of North Carolina soils do), consider creating a mound of pine-bark mulch or other loose soil to plant in. “That’s something you can do just anywhere with enough sunlight,” Cline says. “It will stay acidic, moist, and well-aerated.”
Blueberries thrive in soils with a low (acidic) pH, usually between 4.0 and 5.0. “What I encourage people to do is to take a soil sample to your county extension office,” Cline says. The office will test your soil’s pH and recommend fertilizers. This service is free most of the year, with a small fee during the winter.
After you get your sample back, you can add sulfur to decrease soil pH or lime to increase pH. But pH doesn’t change overnight, so plan well in advance. “Lowering the pH is a biological reaction — you’re relying on bacteria in the soil to react with the sulfur to form sulfuric acid,” Cline says. “It takes months for that to happen naturally.” He recommends prepping soil six months to a year before planting.
Right after planting, it’s pruning time. This means trimming off all the flower buds so the bush can’t produce fruit in the first year, which could damage or even kill the bush. “It’s not established in the ground — it’s not at home yet,” Cline says. “I want to spend at least the first year growing the bush in place before I let it go to a fruiting phase.” So no fruit this year, but the reward is well worth the wait.
To keep your bushes healthy, make sure they’re getting about an inch of water every week, either from rain or supplemental watering. New, establishing bushes may require slightly more water. Additionally, it’s important to continue pruning even after the harvest season ends, selectively removing old or outlying canes or shoots. “You really have to manage the bush health right on into the time that they drop the leaves,” Cline says.
Fast forward to your first harvest season. Once the berries start turning from green to blue, make sure to get all the ripe berries at each picking to prevent overripening. Aim to pick about once a week and try to avoid picking right after it rains. “If you pick blueberries when they’re wet with rain or with dew, you’ll get moldy berries,” Cline says. “They won’t last nearly as long.” After picking, refrigerate your blueberries as soon as possible to maintain freshness.
Related: Use your bounty of fresh blueberries in delicious pie, pound cake, pastries, and more.