Q: With the increasing emphasis on the roles of fresh fruits and vegetables in a healthy diet, I am interested in the possibility of growing berry plants in my yard. Are there some that would do well in the Mobile area?
A: Absolutely! There are both blueberries and blackberries derived from native varieties that are well-suited to our Mediterranean climate, fit well into yard landscapes, are relatively pest- and disease-resistant and, with moderate care and management, will yield plenty of fruit for the average family. Both are delicious as fresh berries, in jellies and preserves, for baking, and in smoothies and other health drinks.
Look for a site in your yard with full sun and good air circulation for best growth and to avoid diseases. If there is a slope, plantings should be at the upper portion of the slope in well-drained soils. Avoid soils with heavy clay. If you do not know your soil pH, take soil samples and have a test performed for both blueberries and blackberries by a reputable soil lab. We recommend Auburn University but there are private labs that do the same thing.
Avoid areas where berry plants would have to compete with tree roots for water and nutrients. Remove competing grass from around the berry plant for about 3-5 feet. Be sure a water source is nearby because during dry periods both blackberries and blueberries need to receive at least 1 inch of water a week and 2 inches when fruiting.
Rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium ashei) perform best in our area. Bushes may live up to 20 years, reach 5-8 feet across and, unless topped occasionally, may become 15 feet tall. Blueberries require soil conditions similar to azaleas and camellias, with a slightly acidic pH of 4.5-5.2 and good organic content. Soil pH can be adjusted with garden sulfur or aluminum sulfate, based upon your soil test recommendations.
To produce a good fruit crop, rabbiteye blueberries need cross pollination between two different varieties. Varieties bloom and ripen at different times so when choosing plants, make sure they have similar blooming and fruiting periods. Good pairings for south Alabama include Climax, Austin and Premier for early berries in late May to early June, and Brightwell and Tifblue for ripe fruit in late June-July.
New plantings should be in a hole no deeper than the soil depth of the pot you’re taking them out of and twice as wide as the pot. Space plants at least 6-8 feet apart for a hedge effect or 10-12 feet apart to be able to walk around mature plants. Fill the planting hole with water and allow it to drain. Gently remove the plant from the pot and carefully spread the roots out to fit in the hole.
Mix organic material such as moist peat moss or shredded pine bark into soil from the hole before covering the roots and refilling the hole. Berries are shallow rooted and sensitive to dry soils and over fertilization, so add no supplements to new plants the first season and water in thoroughly without leaving standing water. Remove damaged and dead branches and any that droop to the ground.
In the second year, fertilize your blueberries with ammonium sulfate or any fertilizer for acid-loving plants such as azaleas and camellias. Make sure it is a complete fertilizer containing micronutrients. An organic fertilizer such as cottonseed meal can also be used. Do not use a nitrate fertilizer. In subsequent years, fertilizer can be applied when new growth begins (March-April) and again during fruiting in June.
Use about 1/8 cup of fertilizer per plant for each year of growth, not to exceed 1/2 cup per application. Spread fertilizer lightly to cover the entire soil surface under the branches; avoid using fertilizer spikes as they will burn plant roots. After about five years of growth, several older, woody stems can be removed each year to encourage new, fruiting stems and retain good air circulation and light penetration. Mulch regularly with about 4-6 inches of pine chips, pine straw or oak leaves.
Blackberries require a different soil environment — pH 6.0-7.0 (should be located away from acid-loving plants) — and sandy loams with some coarse sands. They are perennial plants but produce stems on a two-year cycle (biennially). Do not prune in the first year of planting. The canes or stems that will produce flowers and fruit (floricanes) first appear at the end of fruiting in the previous year (in year one called primocanes).
After fruit harvest (mid-July) all floricanes should be removed. Newly sprouted primocanes can be top pruned in February or March, before flower buds form. Prune to about 3-4 feet. Lateral branches will form at the point of pruning. Primocanes may lose their leaves in the winter but do not fret, they will leaf out again in early spring. In their second year, primocanes become flowering and fruiting floricanes. Berries usually ripen between late June and early August.
In the home landscape, thornless, erect to semi-erect varieties of blackberries reduce the possibility of injury to people and pets, and require little or no trellising support. Good varieties for our area include Navaho, Arapaho and Apache. They are self-pollinating and do not require more than one variety to fruit well.
Planting instructions for blackberries are similar to those for blueberries. Allow about 4 feet between plants. Do not bury or damage the “crown” area where the stems come out of the ground. Keep well mulched and watered.
After the first year, fertilize with a complete fertilizer (10-10-10 or 13-13-13) with micronutrients. Make three applications of about 1/4 cup in March, May and July. Keep fertilizer away from the crown and any very shallow roots.
NOTE: Good varieties of blueberries and blackberries can be purchased at the Mobile Botanical Gardens Spring Plant Sale, March 16-19, or at local nurseries.
You are invited to these upcoming gardening events
• What: Mobile Master Gardeners Lunch & Learn
• When: Monday, Feb. 20, noon to 1 p.m.
• Where: Jon Archer Center,
1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
• Topic: Community Gardens, Dr. Pat Hall
• What: Mobile Master Gardeners Spring Seminar
• When: Saturday, March 4, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
• Where: Jon Archer Center,
1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
• Cost: $30 non-master gardener, $20 master gardeners; includes box lunch, drinks and more
• Topics: Gardening for Serenity: Outdoor Spaces that Rejuvenate, Heal and Ground, Jenny Peterson; Trialed and Trusted Plants, Distinctly Southern, Robert “Buddy” Lee, inventor of Encore Azaleas
Reservation Deadline Feb. 25; call 251-574-8445 for more information.