Lyrene says the most common southern highbush varieties in Florida are the Emerald, Jewel and Star because they have the fewest problems.
“[The University has] about 15 varieties we have released, and each one has one or more problems. A good variety is like putting together the best bush with the proper harvest time, it gets ripe at the right time and then along with it is has berry qualities growers need that have to due with harvesting and packing and post-harvest life. Then, of course, consumers need to be satisfied with the flavor, texture and appearance,” Lyrene says.
The university normally releases about a variety a year. Lyrene says he plans to put several new ones out this coming year if they make it through the cold spring and look good.
Prepping the proper soil
Once growers select the variety they wish to plant, soil preparation is key. Researchers say it is difficult to find soil that blueberries are happy with across the state. The fruit need acidic soil, but they also need a very course texture that is always moist but never saturated, Lyrene says.
Jerry Mixon of SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, says there are still many growers using sulphate-based nitrogens to assist them with their pH control.
“We amend our soils heavily with sulfur, peat moss. That hasn’t changed a lot,” he says. “I am continually amazed at the willingness of growers to try blueberries on such diverse soil types. You go from great rich soils of South Carolina and Georgia to sandy soils of Florida, and growers are still being entrepreneurial enough.”
Lyrene says blueberries, like most plants, need nitrogen, phosphorous, magnesium and other nutrients, and the main trick with blueberries is that they have very shallow roots and are often grown on raised beds. This requires very light but frequent fertilization. That is why he and other scientist recommend fertigation. “If it rains 3 or 4 inches, you leach all the fertilizer out of the soil for blueberries,” he says.
Mixon says more growers are looking into drip irrigation to put water and nutrients where the plants need it. This not only helps solve the soil dilemma; it also tackles disease problems. “Most of our current maladies are waterborne,” he says. “If you have water on top of the bush, it trickles down to the lower parts of bush with overhead irrigation. Drip should clear that up a bit.”
As new diseases appear, scientists and growers look for answers. Mixon says the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, Hawthorne, received some special grants through the new farm bill to devote to research. He serves as director of the association.