A quick interview with Dr. Dave Creech, blueberry expert and horticulturalist extraordinaire
Dr. David Creech is professor emeritus of agriculture and associate director of SFA Gardens. He was also a professor of mine at SFASU. He is still teaching and leading programs there at SFA and he was willing to respond to some questions I had for him. I’ll include a link at the end of this that details his qualifications and research. Suffice it to say he is one of the premier experts (see what I did there, blueberry nerds?) on growing blueberries in the South and he has consulted with blueberry farms both here in the states and in various countries around the world. So here is my brief interview with Dr. Creech:
1) Dr. Creech, how many years have you worked with blueberries? What’s your background when it comes to blueberries?
A: I’ve worked with blueberries and blueberries research since the late 1970’s. I’ve been the author or co-author on numerous peer-reviewed publications on blueberries. I’ve traveled to China, Pakistan, and other places to find new varieties, learn how berries are grown in those countries, and provide insight into more efficient ways for farmers in those countries to grow berries.
2) Do you have any variety recommendations for southern gardeners who want to grow blueberries?
A: Blueberries are a relatively recent crop to Texas, with the first non-native plants planted in the mid-1960’s. There is a native species that was grown in East Texas, but not extensively. Since that time, the number of Rabbiteye and Southern Highbush varieties has really exploded. As a general rule, Southern Highbush varieties are better suited for an area from southeast Texas along the gulf coast to northern Florida. Southern Highbush varieties bloom and produce a crop earlier in the season than Rabbiteye varieties, making them susceptible to crop losses in areas with late spring frosts. Rabbiteye varieties do well in most of the rest of the South. So depending on the location, try something categorized as one of those types. The University of Georgia has a great list of many blueberry varieties here: http://www.smallfruits.org/Blueberries/production/06bbcvproc_Nov0206.pdf
3) What is the single most important thing that a gardener can do to grow blueberries successfully?
A: If the correct variety is selected, the next most important thing is maintaining the proper soil pH (right around 5!) and providing adequate irrigation. In our research, even if the soil was fine and the site was good for blueberries, poor quality irrigation water caused a major decline in plant health. Salts in the water raised the pH level of the soil around the roots to the point that the plants failed. Blueberries must be irrigated with low salt water. Most fresh surface water in the South is fine for blueberries, but well and community water should be tested before it is used in a commercial blueberry farm. A lot of wells and community water in Texas has a salt content high enough to harm blueberries.
And blueberry roots are shallow – no more than one foot deep, even on plants that are several years old – so water them frequently and not too deeply. There’s no point in wasting water.
4) I know you’ve worked with commercial blueberry farms across the world. What’s the smallest acreage someone could start out with and have a productive, somewhat profitable operation in the southeastern U.S.?
The overall marketing plan and goals of the operation are important in answering this question. Half an acre intensely managed could easily yield enough berries for sale at the local farmer’s market. Some of the remaining commercial operations in East Texas are under 10 acres in size.
5) Can you detail for us any trials of any plants that you are currently working on? Are there any new varieties of edibles on the horizon that would work well for customers in the South?
A: We’re really excited about the kiwi trials we recently harvested. We’re also doing research on a sustainable garden, with trials of tomatoes and other crops ongoing.
6) I know that you and the team at SFA recently harvested kiwi plants. What was the best variety harvested and would you recommend it for home gardeners? Do you see commercial potential with this crop?
A: There is probably some commercial potential there once we do a little more research. We did just harvest our first kiwis and they are nothing like the imported varieties sold at the supermarket. We ended up harvesting about 140 pounds of kiwifruit from 8 different vines. The major issue with kiwifruit is timing the pollination between the male and female plants. This was our third year and we had good timing on the male and female blooms opening at the same time, and we had a good amount of pollen transferred. Even if the bloom times do happen at the same time, there still has to be an adequate amount of pollen transferred. The best variety we found was the AU Golden Dragon variety, which was developed by Auburn University. We are going to continue trials here in East Texas to work out some of the issues we had and see if we can fine tune this variety. I think we may have a new fruit crop for Texas and southern gardeners. There is very real commercial potential with this crop.
The varieties we trialed, including AU Golden Dragon, won’t be available to the public until next year. When they do become available, I recommend people give them a try.
7) If a gardener wanted to get more information on you and your work at SFA, is there a website they could visit to learn more?
A: Sure! Check out our updated blueberry page here: http://sfagardens.sfasu.edu/images/stories/PDF/BLUEBERRY%20GROWING.pdf
And check out http://sfasgardens.sfasu.edu for info on the arboretum, azalea garden, and native plants center.
Dr. Dave Creech