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Your Complete Guide to Growing BlueberriesJuly 7th, 2017 by
When I saw the three blueberry bushes in the backyard of our new house, I was both excited and a little wary. I’ve had some success with simple vegetable gardens in the past, but I knew virtually nothing about how to grow blueberries.
I’ve always thought that fruit crops are temperamental and high-maintenance—not something I have the time for at this stage of my life. But my daughter and I can put away blueberries like rollin’ shot to a frog, as my grandmother says, so I was determined to keep those bushes alive and producing berries.
Fast forward about ten months, and I’m happy to report that all three of my blueberry bushes are thriving, with dense branches that are growing heavy with fruit.
Interested in growing your own blueberry crop? I’ve gathered all the information you’ll need to get started.
How to Choose the Right Blueberry Variety
You may not be able to tell from the berries you buy at the grocery store, but there are many different blueberry varieties to grow, depending on your area of the country and how much space you have. Don’t write blueberries off your list if you only have a patio—there are several container-friendly varieties to choose from.
1. Know your zone
The most important step in selecting a blueberry variety is determining your location on the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Knowing your climate zone will help you narrow down the choices.
The USDA zone map begins with Zone 1 in the most northern part of Alaska and ends with Zone 13 in the most tropical parts of the country. If you don’t already know your climate zone, the easiest way to find it out is to go to the USDA’s online map and type in your ZIP code.
Generally speaking, most blueberry varieties are happiest in temperate areas that don’t experience extreme cold or heat. If you live in zones 3 through 10, there is a blueberry variety for you.
2. Calculate how much space you have
Whether you have acres and acres of land or just a sunny corner on your balcony, you can grow blueberries. Blueberry plants are primarily categorized by size and climate zone:
- Rabbiteye – These varieties are native to the southeast US and produce berries that ripen in the heat of the summer. Rabbiteye varieties will grow up to 20 feet tall if they aren’t regularly pruned.
- Northern Highbush – This type of blueberry is native to the eastern side of the US and Canada. Northern Highbush typically reach about 12 feet in height.
- Southern Highbush – This variety grows to only about four feet in height and is a native of the southeastern US.
- Lowbush – Also known as wild blueberries, lowbush blueberry plants stay under about two feet in height and produce small, dark-blue berries. This variety is native to the northeast US.
- Half-high – A hybrid of highbush and lowbush, a half-high blueberry bush typically maxes out in height at around three or four feet, but this variety produces the large, sweet berries that highbush plants are known for.
3. Decide whether you want fruit or decoration—or both
Growing your own food is incredibly rewarding, and many edible plants can also be used as decorative landscaping. Blueberry bushes are known for their vibrant fall foliage and attractive winter silhouettes. Depending on the variety you choose, your yard will be filled with pink and white flowers in the spring, and then you’ll have delicious berries to harvest in the summer.
Some types of blueberry bushes bear more fruit than others, so if you’ve promised a blueberry pie to everyone in your immediate family, look for those higher-yield varieties. To use blueberry bushes as a living fence, plant them close together. Check the planting instructions on your particular variety, but some are happy with a planting distance as close as two feet.
Year-round Blueberry Plant Care Tips
Blueberry bushes aren’t necessarily difficult to grow, but if you want plenty of berries come summer, you’ll need to tend to the plants throughout the year. Here are some essential tips:
1. Test the soil
Blueberry plants require acidic soil—the ideal pH range is approximately 4.0 to 5.0. Look online for an at-home soil testing kit, or contact your local county agricultural extension for help.
If the pH of your soil doesn’t fall within the ideal range, fine sulfur and other soil amendments like peat moss and coffee grounds can help bring the pH into line.
2. Don’t plant a singleton
Blueberries self-pollinate, so you can plant only one blueberry bush if you really want to (or don’t have the space for more), but your annual berry harvest will be much larger if you plant several. Planting at least one more bush will encourage cross-pollination, which can increase and extend each plant’s fruit-bearing abilities.
3. Prune as winter ends
Once your blueberry bushes are well established—two to three years after planting—you’ll need to prune them annually to encourage new growth and berry production. Prune only the oldest branches along with any that are damaged or dead.
Use sharp gardening shears, and cut the branches off at the base of the plant. This is a task that you should only do after the worst of winter has passed, but before spring arrives.
4. Keep your plants hydrated
Blueberries do best in moist soil, so water your plants consistently, paying special attention to a watering schedule in the spring, summer, and fall. Aim for one inch of water per week during the spring and fall, but when berries appear and start to ripen, increase your watering to four inches per week.
5. Keep the weeds under control
But don’t use weed killer or garden tools to do it! Blueberry bushes have relatively shallow root systems compared to other plants, so you risk doing some significant damage if you weed with a garden rake or hoe. And weed killer is pretty nasty stuff—not something you’d want to use on or near an edible plant.
I weed around my blueberry bushes by hand after we’ve had a nice rain. The damp soil releases the entire root of the weed easily, so the whole process is pretty quick. Alternatively, a lawn maintenance company can help you find a solution to persistent weeds.
Troubleshooting Common Problems
Running into problems with your blueberry bushes? I may have an answer for you.
1. No berries?
This is one of the most common complaints, and unfortunately, there are several possible causes. Here’s a quick checklist for you:
- How old are your bushes? Blueberry plants typically do not product fruit for the first three years.
- Is your soil at the right pH? Even if you tested the soil when you first planted your bushes, test again.
- Are your plants getting enough sunlight? Full sun (at least six hours per day) is best.
- Have you pruned your plants? Old branches don’t produce much fruit, if any.
- Do you have just one plant? Another bush or two will help with cross-pollination, which will increase berry yields.
- Have wild birds been hanging out in your yard lately? Blueberries are a favorite of all types of birds, so they may be getting to your crop before you do. Drape your bushes with netting to keep the birds away from the berries.
2. Sour berries?
If your blueberries aren’t the sweet treats you were hoping for, you may be harvesting them too early. Truly unripe blueberries are easy to spot—they’re typically green or pink, depending on the variety. But the berries do turn blue before they’re ready to be picked.
Once you see your berries turn blue, wait another four days or so before you harvest them. Be sure to leave any unripe or partially ripe berries on the bush.
3. Plants not thriving?
Much like a bush not producing berries, failure to thrive can have several causes. Very young saplings can suffer from transplant shock after they’re planted in the ground, so if you can find older plants—two or three years old is ideal—purchase those instead.
Fertilizers can also help perk up unhappy plants—but only after they’ve been in the ground for a year. Use either ammonium sulfate or a fertilizing compound designed for plants in acidic soil.
Blueberry bushes, like almost any other plant, are susceptible to pests and diseases, so if your plants are not doing well, a disease or pest infestation could be the reason. Your local plant nursery or agricultural extension will have more information on treating diseases and pests that are specific to your area.
Ready to Get Started?
I can tell you firsthand that there’s very little more satisfying than wandering out to your own backyard to pick blueberries for a quick snack. It sure beats paying the market price for a half-pint of them at the grocery store!
If you’re a first-time blueberry grower like me, take all the preparatory steps I outlined above as you get started. Seeing your blueberry bushes thrive is rewarding, and when they start bearing fruit, you may find yourself wanting a few more. I’m planning on adding two or three more bushes to my little grove next spring.
Whether you consider them a summer treat or just pretty, year-round landscaping, blueberry bushes have a lot to offer. Happy planting (and berry picking)!