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? Have you tried growing blueberries and had poor results? This post is for you! Learn about growing blueberries in your own backyard.
Growing Blueberries – Quick Guide
- Bluberries prefer soil pH between 4 and 5.5
- Soil should be rich in organic matter
- Plant blueberries in full sun for best production. Plants will tolerate late afternoon shade.
- Blueberries prefer well drained soil.
- Space plants 4-6’ apart for highbush, 2-4’ for low bush with 6-8’ between rows
- While blueberries are self-pollinating, planting a second variety will increase fruit production
- Blueberries need around an inch of water per week during the growing season.
How to Grow Blueberries – Master Grower's Tips
Prepare your blueberry planting bed (preferably the fall before spring planting)
Blueberries grow best with an acid soil pH between 4 and 5.5, so do soil tests 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 blueberry 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.
Choose the Right Blueberry Plants for Your Area
Different varieties can be grown from Texas to Canada. Check with your local Cooperative Extension office, or ask neighbors who have had success in growing blueberries. You can also check your favorite local or online nursery for suggested varieties.
Basic blueberry types include:
Lowbush Blueberry – Vaccinium anugustifolium – Cold tolerant, less productive than high bush varieties, can be used as an edible ground cover or food forest planting
Northern highbush – Vaccinium corymbosum – For zones 4-7 (specific varieties will tolerate colder temps, such as those I’m growing in zone 3). Grow 5-6’ tall.
Southern highbush – Vaccinium corymbosum hybrids – For zones 7-10. Plants require little chilling, but are otherwise similar to their northern cousins.
Rabbiteye – Vaccinium ashei – Best for southern growers. For zones 7-8. Cold tolerant to around zero F. Can grow up to 20 feet if left unpruned, but best trimmed to manageable picking height.
Saskatoon – Amelanchier alnifolia – Not a true blueberry, but extremely cold tolerant. Can be grown in the northern United States and Southern Canada. Does not require acidic soil. Also known as serviceberry, shadbush and juneberry. Fruit flavor is somewhat bland, seeds are larger than blueberry seeds and have a mild almond flavor.
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.
Planting Depth for Blueberries
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 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.
Watering and Mulching Your Blueberry Plants
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.
Protecting Blueberry Plants for Birds and Other Animals
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.
Note: The following sections were added based on reader requests.
Growing Blueberries in Containers, Including Overwintering Instructions
For detailed blueberry container planting information, please see 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
See http://homeguides.sfgate.com/graft-clone-blueberries-73089.html for instructions on cloning your own blueberry plants.
How to Plant Blueberries in Pots
Additional information on growing blueberries in containers, including overwintering, can be found at: Growing Blueberries in Containers by Vijai Pandian, UW-Extension Brown County and Rebecca Harbut, UW-Madison Horticulture
This post is by Laurie Neverman’s brother, Richard Poplawski. Since his service in the Marines, Rich has been a mechanic, fabricator and “fix just about anything” guy for over 20 years. He lives in northwest Wisconsin in the farmhouse that was owned by his grandparents, and maintains a large orchard and perennial plantings, as well as a vegetable garden. He loves spending time with his grandkids, introducing them to gardening or getting in some fishing with “Papa Rich”.
His posts on the site include:
- How to Grow the Best Raspberries You’ve Ever Tasted
- Car Won't Start in the Cold? check Out these Troubleshooting Tips
- 5 Things You Need to Know Before You Buy a Wood Burning Stove
First published in 2012, updated in 2017.