How To Create Fast Growth For New Blueberry Plantings 

How To Create Fast Growth For New Blueberry Plantings 

Charlie O'Dell

Charlie O’Dell

Through the years I have been asked by many new berry growers why their newly planted fields of berries were not growing, or just seemed to be sitting there, with several plants dying or already dead. New blueberry plantings are notorious for having poor growth and plant death, even where drip irrigation was installed.

Of all the berry crops, blueberries have the most exacting soil requirements and attentive soil moisture management in order to attain good plant survival and rapid growth. In return, up to 50, even 60, fruit bearing years are commonly provided from this one well-managed berry planting!

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Dig Deep Into Native Conditions
With any species of berries, when a grower contemplates planting, it is wise to find out under what conditions and soil characteristics that type of berry grows in its native habitat. Dig into the soil among such plants in the wild and note the soil structure and tilth.

From a study of readily available planting guides for each species, determine the optimum soil pH needs of that species.

blueberry roots

The total root system of a young blueberry plant. Note: blueberry plants do not have tap roots, thus cannot reach for deep soil moisture. (Photo credit: Charlie O’Dell)

Can you duplicate these conditions? Are you willing to faithfully follow guidelines provided in nursery planting guides and Extension/research publications from your state university/local Cooperative Extension agents? For example, blueberries originate from bog-like conditions having a high water table near, but not within their shallow roots, with very high soil organic matter content that holds a lot of available soil moisture around the plant roots. In such an environment, soil is acid, and with abundant, almost constant, uniform soil moisture, such plants may never suffer dry soil plant stress.

In such wild plantings, natural soil fertility is augmented by the constant decay of organic residue supplied by soil litter from leaves, humus, even dead plants, replenishing soil nutrients and organic residues. In our fields, on the other hand, native soil organic matter and soil fertility have been greatly reduced, and soil microbial populations are now greatly altered and diminished.

Necessary Adjustments
It becomes obvious that soil alterations to greatly increase organic residue and pH adjustment to the planting site are needed. Many new growers, in their rush to get plants in the ground, actually omit this critically important matter of site soil alteration or preparation. As educators, we in Extension/research need to increase our teaching efforts!

Often we hear about new berry planting failures when growers ask their Extension advisor to come out and recommend a way to improve the growth and plant survival in their young planting. By then it is too late to rescue their project. Remember, proper site preparation is very important for success! Successful plant establishment and rapid early years’ plant growth are dependent on, and directly proportional to, your pre-plant soil alterations to most nearly duplicate the optimum environment needed by each berry species.

To duplicate optimum soil characteristics for blueberries, growers on mineral soils with low organic matter — often less than 1% in many areas — means having to haul in large amounts of wood products such as sawdust or wood chips. Several tons per acre are spread over intended rows in swaths 4 feet wide, at least 3 inches deep, and then tilled into the soil along with agricultural sulfur and peat where soil tests show the need to acidify soil to attain an optimum pH range of 4.8 to 5.0, plus a modest amount of pre-plant fertilizer. One hundred bales of peat per acre spread over the wood products before tilling also adds organic matter plus aids soil moisture retention.

This work needs done the year before planting. If you must be in a rush to plant right now, no waiting, plant something else, not blueberries!

I’m checking second-season blueberry growth in early summer at the farm of John and Ruth Saunders in Nelson County, VA. (Photo credit: Charlie O'Dell)

I’m checking second-season blueberry growth in early summer at the farm of John and Ruth Saunders in Nelson County, VA. (Photo credit: Charlie O’Dell)

What Young Plantings Need
In newly set blueberry plantings, nearly constant soil moisture needs to be maintained on properly prepared, planted fields. Two drip lines per row are ideal, one line on each side of the plants with emitters no farther than 6 inches from plant stems since the roots of young plants are still close to the stems.

Use drip irrigation often, three or more times per week for an hour or more throughout the growing season, with two drip lines per row, whether or not rains occur on the surface mulched plants.

Moxie And Moisture
I recall one young family that was determined to follow recommended soil preparation and irrigating guidelines, including those received from a prominent blueberry nursery from which they purchased their plants.

Like most farms in this region, their soil was low in organic matter, so they followed recommended soil preparation with the addition of large amounts of organic wood products, plus soil acidifying and nutrients, all well ahead of planting. Also, the drip irrigation system on their new planting was used frequently, nearly constantly throughout the entire growing season, even when rains came.

By the end of their second year, those young blueberry plants had already attained a height of over 5 feet, many were 6 feet tall, and were well-branched!

Like them, your goal on any new berry planting should be to keep those newly set young plants growing. Don’t let them stop; you can do it!