Blueberry growing in South Africa:
Compared to other northern countries, blueberries are relatively new to South Africa. Although there are many varieties that require a few “chill hours” during winter in the cooler parts, there are many newer varieties that are propagated and can even be planted in our milder, sub-tropical regions along our coast and lower altitude regions which will produce excellent quality fruit, size, firmness and high yields. Other varieties that require colder and longer winters are generally very winter hardy where some can even tolerate winter temperatures of around -35˚C and can be planted in the very cold areas of the country.
Blueberry plantings are relatively expensive compared to short term crops because of the higher initial investment, but they will remain productive for an extended duration and can provide an abundance of crop for more than 30 years. Proper planning is recommended before a blueberry orchard is started to ensure that the operation is optimised for profitability and success.
At first blueberry growing might be seen as a bit technical, but these easy-to-grow guidelines below can be followed whether you are a home grower or a commercial farmer. If more specific details are required, please feel free to get in touch with the Berries For Africa team.
Blueberries belongs to Vacciniaceae, a sub-family of Ericaceae. They are ericaceous plants, meaning much like Rhododendrons, Azaleas and Camellias, they need to grow in very acidic soil with a ph between 4.2 and 5.5. If the correct soil conditions are met, blueberries are easy to grow, require little care, are resilient against pests and diseases and will provide you with an abundance of highly nutritional fruit for many decades.
Most of the blueberry varieties that we grow and sell to berry producers (farmers), major nurseries, chain stores and individuals are self-fertile and therefore do not need another blueberry plant for cross-pollination. Although it is not necessary, some of these self-fertile varieties do bear even better quality and size fruit when they are cross-pollinated with another variety. We can also provide various rabbiteye varieties but they do require another variety for cross-pollination.[/luv_icon_box][luv_separator height=”50px”]
At the moment we grow and supply 28 different blueberry varieties[/luv_icon_box][luv_separator height=”50px”]
Blueberry bushes prefer full sun but they can tolerate partial shade.
Blueberry roots are very shallow and require aeration. The roots are fine, fibrous and do not have root hairs and therefore do not compete well against weeds which must be eliminated before planting. Weed control should begin the year before planting with means of herbicides and/or cultivation. Avoid sites that are waterlogged, have poor drainage or have a permeable layer close to the surface. Raised beds, 15cm-30cm high can be used if the soil is marginally drained or if the water table is lower than 60cm.
Blueberry plants can also be container grown in pots or bags. We recommend using at least a 23L pot/grow-bag as the plants do get fairly large. A basic potting medium is a mixture of pine bark mulch or acid compost mixed in with about 20-30% Canadian peat moss. The plant can then be directly planted into this mixture. A bit (about 15%) of sandy soil can also be used if it has been tested to ensure that the ph level is less than 6.0.
For optimum control, growth and yields, we recommend using the best suitable growing medium for the specific production system and climate. Throughout the years we have tested various different growing mediums, pots and grow bags on a few thousand of our mother plants, so please feel free to consult us on various options as we can also advise and supply these items.
If planted directly into the ground, a hole with the size of 40cm x 40cm x 40cm can be made where the mixture, mentioned above, can be placed into. When transplanting the plant, make sure to plant it at the same depth to ensure that the crown is not covered or the roots exposed. If peat moss is used in the planting medium, make sure to first wet it well, otherwise it will act as a wick and draw the moisture from the plant roots.[/luv_icon_box][luv_separator height=”50px”]
It is highly advisable to have the soil tested so that the required amendments can be made prior to planting, especially for the rectifications of the ratios between calcium, magnesium and potassium.[/luv_icon_box][luv_separator height=”20px”]
Warding off heart disease. The blueberry’s fiber, potassium, folate, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and phytonutrient content, coupled with its lack of cholesterol, all support heart health. The fiber in blueberries helps lower the total amount of cholesterol in the blood and decrease the risk of heart disease.
Plastic mulch, also known as Agri weave is a synthetic woven mulch that permits the air and water to the soil but prevents sunlight penetration which helps prevent weeds from germinating as well as to keep the root zone cooler saving costs on labour, herbicides, water and fertilizers.[/luv_icon_box]
For commercial berry operations, proper planning is required for optimum growth, quality and yields. Berries For Africa can advise on various qualified and reputable irrigation planners, suppliers and installers.[/luv_icon_box][luv_separator height=”50px”]
Start to fertilize in early spring and stop during mid-summer to avoid too much new shoot growth during late summer and early fall which may lead to winter injury on the tender new shoots especially if planted in the very cold areas in the country where heavy frost occurs.
Blueberry plants are salt and nitrate sensitive. Nitrates and chlorides should be avoided in fertilizer blends for blueberry plants. It is recommended to use fertilizers that provide nitrogen in the form of ammonia such as, Ammonium Sulphate (21%N), Mono Ammonium Phosphate (MAP) or Urea. Ammonium Sulphate generally works well as the plant would use the nitrogen in the ammonium form and would also react with the soil to assist in lowering the ph level during long periods of time. Only use 5g (1 teaspoon) Ammonium Sulphate every 3-4 weeks on small, one year old plants and water in well. Spread the fertilizer along the top of the roots and avoid fertilizing on the crown (stem) of the plant. If the soil ph is below 5.0, Urea nitrogen is preferred as it will not lower the soil ph over time. Potassium Sulphate or Mono-potassium Phosphate (MKP) are suitable sources or potassium. Alternatively, a very slow-release, coated fertilizer such as Osmocote Pro 8-9, Haifa Multicote 9 or Talborne Organics 3:1:5 can be used to provide a wide range of nutrients. Application rates of 15g for smaller plants and 50g on larger plants are common practice, but make sure that the specific label instructions are followed. Blood meal, cottonseed meal and soya meal are very good sources of organic fertilizers. Avoid using manures as they are normally too alkaline when decomposed, contains salts and rich in nitrate-nitrogen which can damage the plants.
For commercial operations we recommend to have the soil and water tested before adding any nutrients into the soil or water.[/luv_icon_box][luv_separator height=”50px”]
Other than than minor pressures from insects such as bollworms, aphids, thrips, weevils, beetles, grasshoppers, locust and a few bird species, pests and diseases are not a serious problem. An integrated pest management programme can be incorporated for crop protection and there are many registered chemical and organic pesticides available in SA. Birds can be a localized issue and bird netting can be used if desired if a great percentage of the fruit is eaten.
Bird deterrents such as bird tape or electronic systems such as the “Bird Guard” have been reported to work well in some areas especially where there are other natural birds of prey present in the area.[/luv_icon_box][luv_separator height=”50px”]