Gardening: Winter is the time to plant new blueberry bushes in your Charleston garden

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Winter is almost here, and so is the time to plant new blueberry bushes. These native shrubs are an excellent addition to any landscape whether as a foundation shrub or for attracting native pollinators.

If planted correctly and maintained appropriately, a blueberry shrub can produce fruit for years to come and is an attractive specimen plant in many settings, especially considering its red fall color. Blueberries are becoming more popular due to their native status and the benefits from the fruit.

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The fall color of a 3-year-old blueberry bush. Christopher Burtt/Provided

Blueberries are members of the heather (Ericaceae) family along with rhododendrons, which includes azaleas.

The wild lowbush blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium, is commonly found throughout the Northeast.

There is the cultivated highbush, V. corymbosum, which has the widest range.

The rabbiteye blueberry is the preferred species here in the Lowcountry due to its adaptability and pest tolerance. The rabbiteye does well in lower elevations, which makes it perfect in the coastal plains.

Though blueberries are self-fertile, fruit production increases with cross pollination. Rabbiteye blueberries have issues with self-incompatibility, which makes the requirement for multiple cultivars necessary.

There are many cultivars available, and each one varies based on chill hours and bloom time. It is important to know how many chill hours are required as to whether the plant will produce fruit. If there are not enough chill hours, the plant may never bear flowers.

Be careful not to choose a cultivar that requires too few chill hours as well. If chill hour requirement is met too early, a warm spell can trigger flower set, which, if followed by a frost, can damage the flowers and terminate fruit production.

Clemson University’s Home and Garden Information Center provides information on several cultivars to choose from.

Growing and maintaining blueberries is relatively simple once established, but care should be taken in planting and establishment in order to increase the production and longevity of the shrub.

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A blueberry bush shows nutrient deficiencies in high pH soil. Christopher Burtt/Provided

Blueberry plants prefer well-drained, acidic soil to thrive and these are by far the most common issues with stunted blueberry plants. The pH recommendation for blueberries is between 4.5 and 5.5. A pH above a 6.0 can stunt the plant permanently. It is imperative to have a soil test done before planting to determine the pH. Once a shrub is stunted due to improper pH, the plant does not generally recover.

There are a few things to keep in mind when planting new blueberry shrubs.

The first thing is to choose healthy plant stock as some diseases may be present that cannot be fixed.