Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; firstname.lastname@example.org and Emmalea Ernest, Scientist – Vegetable & Fruit Crops; email@example.com
There has been an increase in interest in growing blueberries on Delmarva and we have had several new plantings in the region in recent years.
Blueberries are very specific in the type of soil conditions they require. The ideal blueberry soil will be sandy but with high levels of organic matter, it will have a pH between 4.5 and 5.0, it will be well drained in the surface soil. Soils on Delmarva which naturally have these characteristics are limited.
A common mistake that is made is to plant blueberries before the soil and site have been prepared. Normal agricultural soils in southern Delaware will have a pH around 6.0 and organic matter below 2%. Blueberries will not grow well in these conditions. It is advised to plan at least one year in advance to modify the soil.
There are six keys to prepare your site for successful blueberry establishment:
1) Blueberries cannot tolerate standing water at any time and site selection is important. Choose well drained sites and consider raising beds or ridges to improve drainage where needed.
2) Increase soil organic matter before planting
3) Drop soil pH to between 4.5 and 5.0 and bring phosphorus and potassium up to optimum or high levels prior to planting
4) Put organic material in the planting hole during planting
5) Be prepared to mulch the plants after planting
6) Install a drip irrigation system
To increase organic matter, plant cover crops and consider amending the soil with additional organic sources such as pine bark fines. Do not use composts that have high pH.
The pH of the soil will need to be lowered on most soils. This is done by adding elemental sulfur at recommended rates according to soil type and the amount of pH drop required. Sulfur additions need to be done the year before planting. It takes several months for the full reaction to take place. You cannot apply sulfur in the year of planting and expect the soil pH to be in the acceptable range for good first year growth.
After soil has been properly modified, you can plant the blueberries. This is normally done in the spring. Fall plantings are possible but there are higher risks to losses in harsh winters. When laying out plantings and deciding on between row spacing, think about how you will apply mulch and pesticides and whether you will be using netting to exclude birds.
Another key to planting blueberries is to add organic matter to the planting hole. The most common practice for smaller plantings is to use one gallon of moistened peat moss in each hole. Other organic materials can be substituted but they should be low in pH and should be at least partially decomposed. Most commercial composts are not acceptable because the pH is too high for blueberries. Also, composts made with manures as a component may have too high of salt levels and can injure the blueberry roots.
After planting, blueberries should be mulched heavily. Blueberry roots are shallow and need to be protected from high soil temperatures. In addition, the mulch will conserve soil moisture and provide additional organic matter as it slowly decomposes. The best mulch materials are high in lignin and acidic in nature. Pine bark is ideal but is often not readily available. Aged wood chips or ground yard waste that has been aged makes good mulch. Sawdust must be partially decomposed before use to avoid nitrogen deficiencies. Avoid mulches that increase the soil pH.
Drip irrigation is recommended for blueberries and is best placed under the mulch. Because blueberries are shallow rooted, frequent irrigations during our hot summers will be needed to get the plants established and growing well. Overhead irrigation can also work if designed properly.
Do not put fertilizers in the plant hole and avoid adding any fertilizer until plants are established. In the first year, blueberries will need about 20 pounds of nitrogen and nitrogen should be in the form of ammonium sulfate or urea. Do not use N sources that contain nitrate. Do not use fertilizers containing chloride (such as KCl – potash).
Place plant orders the year prior to planting. Plants may come as bare root plants, large liners, or potted plants. Large liners and pots have less risk of planting losses. Choose northern high bush varieties recommended for our region. Current recommendations can be found in the Mid-Atlantic Berry Guide. The University of Delaware has conducted trials with additional varieties (many southern highbush types). Contact Emmalea Ernest (firstname.lastname@example.org) for results and additional variety recommendations.