Archive for Thursday, March 5, 2009

Learn to avoid the blues when growing blueberries

March 5, 2009

I’ve seen a lot of successful fruit crops grown here in Leavenworth County, but one fruit that remains a bit more elusive, yet tempting, is the blueberry. I have heard many stories of homeowners trying and failing to grow blueberries here. Blueberries are not naturally suited to grow well here for a variety of reasons, but I want to share some tips on how to give these berries an excellent chance to survive in northeast Kansas.

The main problem blueberries encounter in our area is high soil pH. Our soil is not acidic enough for them to do well. Blueberries are related to azaleas and rhododendrons, so it’s no surprise that they require a soil pH in the range of 4.8-5.2. The problem with that requirement is most soils in this area have a pH of around 7.0. A pH of 7.0 means the soil is of a neutral pH, and while a lawn and most vegetables are doing well, blueberries will struggle to survive.

If you plan to plant blueberries, soil preparation is a key to success. Get a head start well before you intend to plant to achieve weed control, adjust soil pH (you can lower pH with sulfur), and add organic matter to the soil. I recommend getting your soil tested before planting so you know the nutrient levels and soil pH. You can then correct any nutrient deficiencies, and adjust the soil pH accordingly.

If the soil pH is between 5.5 and 6.0, you need to add one pound of sulfur per 100 square feet of garden to lower the pH. If the pH is between 6.0 and 6.5, add 1.5 pounds of sulfur per 100 square feet. For pH levels above 6.5, add 2 pounds of sulfur per 100 square feet, and in addition to the sulfur, add about 4 cubic feet of sphagnum peat moss per 100 square feet of area.

You can apply sulfur as a dust, but the pelletized sulfur is easier to use and allows more even distribution around the desired area. Do not use aluminum sulfate to lower the pH, as the high levels of aluminum can be toxic to blueberries. When applying sulfur, apply it in a 5-foot wide strip where you can center your row of blueberries. This way you aren’t wasting sulfur in other areas of the garden. Sulfur takes some time to react with soil, so allow as much time as possible between applying sulfur and planting blueberries. Typically blueberries need to be spaced about 5 feet apart within the row for best long-term production.

Once the blueberries are planted, mulching is key. Adequate watering and water storage in the soil are crucial to blueberries because their roots do not have root hairs. Root hairs are microscopic hair-like extensions of roots that increase the roots’ surface area and help with uptake of water and nutrients. Mulch the blueberries with about a 3-inch layer of straw, wood chips or sawdust for best results. Irrigation, or regular watering, during the summer is a must for blueberry survival. Do not water to the point that the soil becomes waterlogged.

Two blueberry varieties that are known to do well here are Bluecrop and Patriot, but there are many others that are capable of producing here too.

If this article has piqued your interest in blueberry production, visit the K-State Research and Extension Web site oznet.ksu.edu/dp_hfrr/blueberries.pdf for more information.

You can also contact me for more information at the Leavenworth County Extension Office on the corner of Hughes and Eisenhower roads in Leavenworth, or call (913) 250-2300. I can also be reached via e-mail at mepler@ksu.edu.

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