How to plant, harvest, and enjoy summer’s sweet rewards
While many gardeners plant rabbiteye blueberries directly into the landscape (you won’t regret a patch of four to six bushes, promises Blue Pearl Farms co-owner Cheri Ward), you can easily grow them in containers, too. As with in-ground plants, pruning and good drainage are key.
“Blueberry bushes want to take over the world,” says Cheri Ward, co-owner of Blue Pearl Farms in McClellanville. Thwarting tyranny with good pruning, Ward and her husband instead nurture some 3,000 plants into sweet, juicy prosperity. And this month, as their fat blue rewards begin to roll in, she shares her growing secrets.
For starters, Lowcountry gardeners should consider rabbiteye blueberries, rather than their cousin, the Southern highbush. In Ward’s opinion, rabbiteyes grow best here and “offer superior flavor.”
For pollination, you’ll need at least a pair of rabbiteyes. But think about going bigger: “If you plant two, you’ll love them...and find yourself looking to add four more.” They’ll earn their keep beyond berry season, brightening the landscape with pink and white flowers in February and crimson foliage come fall.
While it’s best to plant from October to March, summer is a great time to prep your patch. A soil pH of 4 to 5.5 is vital. “If you have pine trees dropping needles on your yard, you’re likely in good shape,” Ward says. However, a soil test ($6-$15) through Clemson Extension will yield exact stats. Specify that you’re planning for blueberries to receive recommendations on fertilizers and other amendments that will help you reach the right acidity.
(Left) Blooms appear in February; (right) Blue Pearl Farms sells blueberry bushes dug from its fields and ready to yield a harvest.
In any case, the ground will benefit from a topdressing of mulch. “Lay about three inches of settled pine needles or a couple inches of pine bark nuggets where you plan to plant,” Ward instructs. “As they decay, they’ll add organic matter to your soil.” Once the bushes are in place, the mulch will be essential for moisture retention.
Already growing blueberries? Know that “The plants will start working on next year’s berries as soon as they finish fruiting this summer,” says Ward. After the harvest, “Take out the largest, oldest canes and any that are damaged. If needed, trim the bush to the height you’d like it to be when picking—five or six feet.” Next, give the plants a healthy snack; Ward uses an organic fish and seaweed emulsion fertilizer.
Normally, Blue Pearl discusses year-round pruning and feeding specifics during an August workshop. Add that to the list of this season’s uncertainties, but know that you can order fresh berries (plus nursery plants, honey, and blue crabs) at bluepearlfarms.com, then pick them up at the farm.
At a Glance:
For the biggest, sweetest berries, plant at least two rabbiteye varieties that fruit at different times during the summer. For example, Blue Pearl Farms sells four kinds—heritage plants they call “Blues,” “Pearls,” “Garden Variety,” and “Grower’s Reserve.” At local nurseries, you may find the popular early-season producer ‘Climax’ and the late-season ‘Takes the Cake’.