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Planting and Spacing Blueberry Plants – Denser Spacing Methods for Increased Production and Profits
A quiet shift is afoot in some parts of the blueberry industry. In the interest of efficiency, low-density blueberry fields are being replaced with closer spacing to maximize production and income.
Typically blueberry plant space
Typically, northern varieties of blueberry plants are planted about 5 feet apart to give the plants room as they mature. Rabbit varieties are usually planted 6 to 7 feet apart because they grow larger. There is a trend toward closer spacing of 4 feet for northern blueberry varieties to increase production. While opinions may differ on optimal plant size and spacing, most agree that closer spacing is an economic necessity.
More dense space between plants
A silent revolution is taking place on our farm. In our farm we have gone one step further. In the interest of efficiency, low-density young blueberry fields are rapidly being replaced. Planting blueberry plants more densely is a way to maximize efficiency while increasing the usefulness of the weed barrier fabric we use during the time the plants are maturing. Planting blueberry plants closer than usual will increase overall yields and therefore profits for the first five years. After that, the plants can be thinned out and planted in a new area. This makes a lot of sense to us. Reduces the cost per plant of weed barrier fabric making it twice as cost effective. It also makes sense in terms of making maximum use of the necessary mulch.
The denser plant spacing for tall blueberries, 2 to 2 ½ feet apart, effectively doubles the number of plants per acre. This results in yields over the first five years that are substantially higher in blueberry production than in non-densely planted ones. This is a benefit to the overall economy of the system. Beyond the fifth year, competition between plants can create problems, requiring the removal of all other plants in the row. This is not a problem as tall blueberries are easily transplanted and a new field can be established with plants removed from the old field. In this way the plants are not lost and during the time of denser planting a better production of blueberries and greater associated benefits are possible. This also allows time to be working compost in a new area by the time the cranberry transplants arrive. Our farm, like most farms in Kentucky, is made up of dense clay soil, so incorporating organic matter into the soil is a necessity. Having more time to amend the soil is a huge benefit.
For the rabbit’s eye blueberries we use a 3 foot spacing because the rabbit’s eye plants grow larger and a bit faster than the bush blueberry plants. When removed, this gives 6 feet of spacing which is what is needed for mature rabbit eye plants.
Consistency is the key with cranberry watering. Blueberry plants need moist but never soggy soil. Wet soil with standing water will stunt or kill the plant. The frequency of watering will vary with soil porosity, plant size, mulch and environmental factors such as temperature and humidity. For young plants, about 2 inches per week is usually needed, and more in hot, dry weather.
Blueberry plants are fed a lot of nitrogen. Ammonium sulfate is commonly used as a fertilizer for blueberry plants or is often used as a fertilizer for azaleas and rhododendrons. We use slow release fertilizer 14-12-14 6 months applied in early spring before plants come out of dormancy. This provides fertilizer for the plant as it begins its spring growth.
Planting blueberry plants with a similar flowering time helps with cross-fertilization. Plants that flower around the same time should also be planted in the same area to help with cross-pollination.
One of the main problems in growing blueberries is weed control. This is especially true during the first few years of a plant’s life. To reduce human energy requirements, we use weed barrier fabric. This is an expensive approach. For more cost-effective use, dense planting means that roughly twice as many blueberry plants can be grown with the same amount of weed barrier fabric. The weed barrier cloth used is 4 feet wide which provides 2 feet of space on each side of the plant without weeds. A non-invasive grass is used in the rows between the plants and is kept mowed providing a good cover material.
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