Do you love the taste and health benefits of blueberries? Would you like a fruit crop that will produce well in a short amount of time and doesn’t require a lot of space (and can even be grown in a container)? Have you tried growing blueberries and had poor results? This post is for you! Learn how to grow blueberries at home in your own backyard.
Why Should I Grow Blueberries?
I would grow blueberries at home just for the taste alone. A perfectly ripened blueberry warm off the bush is a lovely thing, and some home varieties (such as Rubel) pack an extra flavor punch. Blueberries are a super fruit, packed with health benefits. The World’s Best Foods states that blueberries are loaded with antioxidants and phytonutrients that benefit nearly every system in the body.
- Help improve memory and may help prevent age-related memory loss
- Have a low glycemic index and may also aid in regulating blood sugar levels
- Improve cardiovascular health
- Protect the retina from oxygen damage
- May help prevent cancer
Which blueberries should I grow?
Different varieties can be grown from Texas to Canada. I’d recommend checking in with your local Cooperative Extension office, or asking neighbors who have had success in growing berries for specific cultivars that are best suited to your area. Mother Earth News has a great chart that summarizes recommended blueberry types for different regions.
Basic blueberry types include lowbush (cold tolerant, less productive), northern highbush (zone 5-7 or colder), southern highbush (zones 7-10), rabbiteye (best for southern growers) and saskatoon (not a true blueberry, but extremely cold tolerant).
What type of soil do I need for blueberries?
Blueberries grow best with an acid soil pH between 4 and 5.5, so do a soil test before you start. If your soil is alkaline, you’ll either need to do a LOT of soil amending or grow you blueberries in a container.
Blueberries like soil rich in acidic, organic material, like you would find on forest floor or edge of the forest. Peat moss is commonly recommended, but pine needles, leaves and other tree fallout (that may be available for free) work just as well.
When you prepare your planting area, dig a generous amount of organic matter into your soil. Time and effort up front will make all the difference in plant performance. Watch out for large amounts of sulfur and other chemical additives, which may lower pH but disrupt the soil microbes. If you do add sulfur in quantity to lower pH, wait at least three months for it to break down before planting. (For instance, add in fall for planting in spring.)
The first time I planted blueberries, I used pine sawdust to kill the weeds, then used the sawdust for mulch. It worked OK, but I think the sawdust used a lot of nitrogen, which slowed plant growth.
When I extended my blueberry patch, I first smothered the grass in a 10’x24′ plot with black plastic during the growing season. In the fall I tilled in a generous amount of leaves and black peat by-product from Whitetail Organics earthworm casting production. (My nephew owns and operates Whitetail Organics.) I know my soil is acidic enough from the test I did before starting the plot.
How deep should I plant my blueberries, and when should I fertilize them?
Potted plants should be planted at the same depth they are growing in pot. The same rule applies for bare root plants. The potted plants I planted blossomed and had fruit the first year. Bare root plants may take longer.
The texts I have suggest fertilizing with 2 ounces of ammonium sulfate 18 inches from the plant when you see blossoms and increasing by an ounce each year up to 4 oz per plant per year. In years when organic mulches are applied increase the amount by 1/2. I’m currently gathering pine needles for mulch to keep the weeds down. Blue berries are a shallow rooted shrub and don’t compete well with grass, so they will really benefit from a good mulching.
One of the best discoveries I have made is is how the plants respond to earthworm castings for fertilizer. My nephew gave me a 5 gallon pail in the fall and suggested I use it for the berries. Since its low nitrogen I figured it would be OK, but it triggered a growth spurt and even a few blossoms in October. Now when the berries are starting to bud, I fertilize with earthworm castings and they do great. From my experience, a complete organic fertilizer gives results that chemicals such as Miracle Grow can’t match.
I now have a 24’x40′ enclosure that will be planted with 3 sugar sweet cherry bushes, 4 honey berries, 2 blue moon, 2 blue velvet, and the rest will blue berries, including the varieties North Blue, Chippewa, and Blue bell, a high bush type not really for this area, but I have 3 of them started so I’m going to give them some time.
How much water do blueberry plants need?
Blueberries need around an inch of water per week. A good layer of mulch will help keep up the moisture level stable, and cut down on the amount of time spent watering. I would say the best mulch would be pine needles. As they decay they will continue to supply nutrients and help maintain the correct pH.
If you can’t get pine needles, bark over landscape material would be my next choice, although I haven’t tried it. Each spring, I would suggest pulling up the mulch and adding organic material such as compost or castings to keep the ground healthy. (Healthy soil = healthy plants. Plants in the healthiest soil will produce the healthiest berries) Remember, these bushes have the potential to provide many years of delicious berries, so they are worth the extra effort.
How to I keep birds and other animals away from my blueberries?
The first problem I ran into with blue berries is that every wild animal eats them, and not just the berries. They started with the newly planted bushes. First the deer came to browse and then the rabbits, and the first 6 plants I put in turned into 2 inch stubs.
I fenced the next planting with 3 foot wire, but I still had problems with the deer jumping the fence, so last year I went to a 6 1/2 ft fence. To keep the birds out I built a frame work out of T post, chicken wire, tube steel and conduit, then ran wires to support plastic bird netting. This created safe haven for the plants to grow and berries to ripen pest free. Having the netting elevated instead of just draped over the plants provides better protection and makes the plants easier to access for harvest and care.
I know there are products to repel deer and rabbits but I’m not convinced in their effectiveness. Same with different tactics to repel hungry birds – nothing is going to be as effective as a physical fence. When you price fencing materials they may seem expensive, but remember a blueberry planting can last 30 years if you manage it properly, so it will be worth it in the long term.
This post was written with my brother, Richard, based on his blueberry experience. I’m going to use his advice to overhaul my own blueberry patch this season, which sadly looks not nearly as nice as his. I need more organic matter. My neighbor has a big pile of aged leaves and pine needles that I’ve been eying up in his woods…
I hope you’ve found this post useful. If so, please share. Any questions or comments, just let us know, and we’ll do our best to help.
P.S. We’ve answered some questions in the comments, so I’m adding those to the post.
Growing Blueberries in Containers, Including Overwintering Instructions– http://hort.uwex.edu/articles/growing-blueberries-containers. Excerpt from the article:
Because containers do not provide adequate insulation from the cold, be sure to protect container-grown blueberries during the winter to prevent root damage. In mid- to late October, bury containers in the ground at a site where snow is likely to accumulate and where plants will be protected from cold winter winds. Mulch the soil surface with four to eight inches of straw in mid-November or cover the bushes with burlap. Prevent rabbit damage by placing chicken wire fencing or hardware cloth around the bushes. During early to mid-spring, remove containers from the ground and place them in full sun. Alternatively, containers can be left buried in the soil as long as the containers have proper drainage holes and the site where the containers are buried is well drained and exposed to full sun.
How to Prune Blueberries – Here’s a good post from Oregon State University Extension on proper pruning techniques for blueberries – “Prune blueberries yearly for more fruit“, which includes the following steps:
“Remove the low growth that would touch the ground when loaded with fruit. Cut out short, soft shoots that develop from the base of the plant late in the season.
Prune off canes and twigs damaged by winter injury, mechanical causes, diseases or insects. Cut out the unproductive canes: those that haven’t produced much new growth on one-year-old canes, which have buds and are dull in color.
If you have been pruning every year, it is best to remove the two oldest (most unproductive) canes each winter.
Prune to let light down into the plant center.
If your plants tend to overbear, with numerous small fruits rather than larger ones, thin the fruit buds by clipping back some of the small shoots carrying a heavy load of flower buds. Blueberry flower buds are near the tips of the past season’s growth and are large and plump, compared to the small scale-like “leaf” buds.”
How to Transplant Mature Blueberry Plants – Yes, you can transplant mature blueberry bushes. It’s best done in late winter or early spring. This is a pretty good guide, although I would try to give the sulfur a longer rest period before planting. http://www.gardenguides.com/112707-transplant-mature-blueberry-bush.html
How to Clone Blueberries from Mature Plants – http://homeguides.sfgate.com/graft-clone-blueberries-73089.html
How to Plant Blueberries in Pots