After spending far too much money on a regular basis buying those little tubs of blueberries at *Woolworths, I decided to try my hand at growing them myself. This has turned out to be a little bit more involved and tricky than I anticipated for the average South African gardener, but we succeeded. My dad-in-law harvested his very own single blueberry just before Christmas, from a very young plant I gave him earlier in the year.
Many fruiting plants and berries grow perfectly happily in Gauteng’s various soil types and climate. But don’t be fooled into thinking you can buy a punnet of blueberries at the store, stick some seeds in your garden or a pot, add water and enjoy berries in a couple of months. You can do that for sure with Cape Gooseberries / Appeliefies (Physalis Peruviana), like I did, and be overrun with them in your garden for years. Not so with blueberries. They require special conditions, care and patience but they will reward you for it.
So, here are a few things you need to know before you start trying to grow blueberries in South Africa, particularly for people in Gauteng (which is where I am). I’ve tried to keep the post short and sharp, but there is a follow up post coming up with more info and pictures.
10 Tips for Growing Blueberries in South Africa:
1. Get a plant, or a cutting. Don’t try to grow blueberries from seeds. Blueberries still aren’t as widely available as blackberries and raspberries have become in the past couple of years, but more and more places in Gauteng are stocking them. In the Western Cape it’s even easier as there are a number of blueberry farms there. It is much better to put in a bit of legwork and Google-Fu to find a young plant, that will usually be ready to produce fruit in a year or less. With seeds, it takes special conditions, equipment and months to germinate them, plus a 6 or 7 year wait for fruit.
2. You need at least two different varieties of blueberries to get fruit, because they need to cross pollinate. Be sure to buy named varieties and don’t get conned into buying two plants of the same variety for cross pollination. Some garden centers are not well informed.
3. Blueberries have chill requirements. I won’t get too detailed about it, but be aware that many blueberries need a certain amount of freezing temp hours in winter, in order to activate them to go fully dormant before they can wake up and prepare to make buds for fruit and new leaves in spring.
4. Read up a little bit about the 3 main types of blueberries before selecting two or more varieties for your garden. South Africa, and Gauteng in particular, is much warmer than the native range of blueberries in the United States. However there are some blueberries native to the warmer southern states that will do fine in most areas of SA. Blueberries are grouped into types depending on where they originate from and thrive: Lowbush (think Alaskan wilderness), Highbush (northern US), Rabbiteye (vigorous, native to much warmer southern US & suitable for GP) and Hybrids, also known as Southern Highbush, some of which were developed in Australia and are perfect for SA.
5. Blueberries require acidic soil (they are ericaceous plants). They will wither away and die in ordinary Gauteng garden loam, and other neutral or alkaline soils. You can add agricultural sulphur or flowers of sulphur powder to the soil. Flowers of sulphur is a yellow powder that you can buy in little boxes at Clicks, Dischem or your local pills and potions dispensary. I haven’t tested the pH of my pots, but the blueberries seem to like it.
6. Plant them in a pot where you can mix up the soil to suit their requirements. It will be a pain to try to acidify and maintain an entire garden bed like that, especially if you want to plant anything else there in future. Very few plants tolerate acidic soil.
7. Blueberries require acidic water. Water only with rainwater, or in a pinch, add a bit of vinegar to tap water. They will die a slow death if watered regularly with tap water.
8. Use a fertiliser for acid loving plants. The types of fertilisers for azaleas, rhododendrons etc are perfect for blueberries. I also use fish emulsion and a granular one called Multifeed. Still on feeding, blueberries enjoy organic matter in their soil. Get them acid compost.
9. Ideal soil mix for blueberries in pots
1/3 Perlite (not vermiculite)
1/3 Acid compost
Mulch with pine bark or pine needles (which are also acidic). Mine all need to be repotted into larger containers but I haven’t had time to do so. I have topped them up with aged manure and acid compost though. They have all put on lots of new growth since then.
10. Blueberry growing conditions & seasons in South Africa
I was initially advised to place the pots in a protected area, out of full sun, like a veranda. I was told to ignore the advice online about putting them in full sun, because the African sun could fry them. I think my lapa turned out to be a bit too shady, because the plants did keep growing but the new leaves and stems were soft, lanky and a bit chlorotic (very light green, with dark veins).
I took a chance and placed them in full sunlight, starting on overcast days for a few hours at a time. Both nurseries had them under shade cloth. They are all now in full sun and the new growth is stronger and dark green. However, this has meant I need to water more often. If the day is a real scorcher with low humidity, I move them to the shade.
Blueberries are deciduous. In autumn the leaves will turn fiery shades of red and fall off by winter, leaving the plants bare. Prune them if they are older than two years, by eliminating old branches that died in summer and any branches that cross. Prune them just like you would a rose.
In spring they will produce masses of white blossoms. If you have two varieties of blueberries near each other and pollinating insects, you can expect little green blueberries by late spring. They should be ripe in time for Christmas in South Africa, depending on the variety.
If you have time for a longer, scientific read this excellent article by M Greef of Orchman.com, about growing blueberries in South Africa, is an excellent resource even for commercial farmers.
*Blueberry crumpets made with said Woolies blueberries.