I have such a soft spot in my heart for blueberries. Some of my most cherished childhood memories involved spending lazy summers picking these sweet fruits with the family. Then, I watched those tiny blue morsels turn into delicious treats.
When I started a family of my own, I knew that I wanted to recreate those memories. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the first thing about growing blueberries!
After a few years of tossing dead blueberry bushes into the compost pile, I decided that I needed to learn how to do things the right way. I knew that blueberry plants take time to truly flourish.
So, if I wanted my kids to experience the same joy from blueberries that I did, I needed to get those plants established.
Turns out, growing blueberries isn’t as difficult as I thought. It just involves some careful preparation, know-how, and plenty of patience.
What are Blueberries?
Often considered to be a “superfood,” blueberries have a pretty long and complex history. Today, they’re one of the most identifiable fruits around. The tiny sweet berries take on a deep blue or purplish color and pack a sweet punch.
Technically speaking, blueberries are part of the Vaccinium genus. They’re closely related to other wild berries, including cranberries, lingonberries, and huckleberries.
Blueberries grow on beautiful bushes. They’re flowering and fruiting perennial plants that can continue to provide annual harvests for decades with proper care.
Beyond the tasty treat they provide, blueberry plants also do double-duty as ornamental bushes. They have pointed oval leaves that transform into a deep red color during the autumn season. Once spring rolls around, those leaves come back to life as clusters of crisp white flowers start to pop up.
The Origins of the Blueberry
These days, it’s not hard to find fresh and frozen blueberries at your local grocery store. However, it wasn’t always that way. Blueberry bushes are native to North America and are still growing in the wild to this day.
Wild varieties are much different than what most people have grown accustomed to. They tend to be on the smaller side. Even still, Native Americans spent centuries making use of these berries. Back then, they called them “star berries” due to the signature blossom shape on the bottom.
Native Americans used blueberries in several ways. They dried the fruits up for snacking, used them as a seasoning, provided medicinal care, and more. The fruits were even used for dyeing, as they are one of the few anthocyanin-rich foods out there.
Despite the widespread availability of blueberries today, there was a time when people didn’t think that cultivation was possible. Thankfully, that all changed in the early20th century.
We have Emily White and botanist Frederick Coville to thank. They were the first to create a successful crop. Ultimately, the pair’s work led to the spread of blueberries across the world.
What Are Some Types of Blueberries?
Thanks to decades of cross-pollination and experimentation, there are several varieties of blueberries available. They all fall into four basic categories. These include highbush, lowbush, hybrid half-high, and rabbiteye.
One of the most popular types of cultivated blueberries in the highbush. As the name would suggest, these plants are much taller than their wild counterparts. When they reach full maturity, highbush plants can get as tall as five to nine feet high.
Due to the tall growth, you’ll often find highbush blueberries used in landscaping. Though, they do require regular pruning to keep the plant in good shape. The good news is that this variety has the longest lifespan. They can last for up to50 years!
Within the highbush category, there are two distinct varieties. Northern highbush plants were the first cultivated blueberries available. They were specifically made to hold up to the cold climates in the Northeastern United States.
Southern highbush blueberries do well in slightly warmer regions, such as Florida. These plants can’t handle harsh winters. In fact, they can start to die off in freezing temperatures.
In terms of size, southern highbush plants don’t get quite as tall as the northern varieties. Most plants stay between six and eight feet in height. Both types of highbush plants are self-pollinating. However, you’ll see a greater yield if there are other blueberry plants nearby.
Lowbush plants are native to Northeast states like Maine. They’re incredibly hardy and actually require winter chilling to produce a good harvest.
These varieties closely resemble the wild plants that Native Americans collected from. As you might have already guessed, lowbush blueberries stay very close to the ground. Typically, they don’t get any taller than one and a half feet.
Unlike highbush varieties, lowbush blueberries do not self-pollinate. So, you’ll need to have some cultivars nearby to ensure that your fruit will develop.
Hybrid Half-High Blueberries
If you’re looking for a blueberry plant that you can keep in a container, hybrid half-high varieties might be your best bet. Originally created by cross-pollinating highbush and lowbush plants, the hybrid half-high stays between three and four feet tall. Some species stay even shorter than that.
Rabbiteye plants originate in the Southeast United States. While other varieties rely on some cold winters, that’s not the case with Rabbiteyes. They thrive on long summers and will become damaged if they stay out in the snow or frost.
Generally, most rabbiteye blueberry plants get to be around 10 feet tall. Though, there have been cases of these plants reaching heights of15 feet!
The environment where rabbiteye plants grow is drastically different than other varieties. As a result, the berries tend to have a thicker skin and a sweeter taste.
When Should You Plant Blueberries?
Generally, it’s recommended that you plant blueberry bushes as soon as the spring season starts. These plants will need time to adjust to the new soil conditions and environment. The earlier in the season you plant, the better.
Those in warmer parts of the United States may want to try planting in the middle of fall. Southern highbush and rabbiteye varieties can use the winter season to get established. Usually, this leads to more pronounced growth in the spring.
When you’re planting, consider purchasing bare-root plants that are one to three years old. More mature plants may experience transplant shock. This could affect the plant’s adaptation process, which ultimately stretches the harvesting timeline.
How to Choose and Prepare a Planting Site for Blueberries
The key to growing successful blueberry bushes is to choose the perfect spot. While these perennials are quite resilient, small discrepancies can make all the difference. Blueberries need a very specific type of soil and environment to truly thrive. Here are some things to consider.
The quality of the soil is, perhaps, the most important factor. Blueberries prefer acidic soil with a pH balance between 4 and 5. Before you do anything, do some soil tests to ensure that you have the right environment for your plants.
If you don’t have the right pH level, don’t fret. You can acidify the soil to meet the needs of your blueberry plants. However, there should be several months of time before you want to plant. If possible, try to do it the year before.
The amount of product that you’ll need to mix with the soil will depend entirely on your chosen method. It’s best to err on the side of caution and add small amounts at a time. After enriching the soil, check the pH balance every few months and make the necessary adjustments you need.
In addition to the right pH balance, the soil needs to have some organic matter. Not only does this help to keep the pH balance just right, but the nutrients can also hold moisture to keep the plant hydrated.
You can incorporate organic materials like sawdust, compost, or yard debris. Just use a tiller to get everything incorporated so that the decomposition process starts.
Blueberries need plenty of sunlight to stay healthy. Pick a spot that received direct sunlight for at least three-quarters of the day.
Some varieties do just fine in some partial shade, but you should limit the plant’s daily shade cover to the late afternoon.
There’s a fine balance between providing your blueberry bushes with too much water and not enough. These plants have shallow roots that don’t go any deeper than 10 inches.
The soil should be able to hold moisture while having the ability to drain. As a test, you can keep an eye on moisture levels after heavy rain. If the soil is still wet or has standing water after two days, it’s not a good option for your blueberry bushes.
Generally, soils that are heavy in clay are a no-go. You’ll need to plant in a raised bed or container.
Raised beds only need to be about three feet wide and about a foot and a half high. Simple wooden sides are enough to keep the roots and soil contained.
Depending on the quality of your soil, you may not need walls at all. You can plant blueberry bushes on raised hills or mounds. This method can improve drainage significantly and let you plant bushes in areas that you otherwise couldn’t use.
Distance from Trees
Your blueberry bushes should be a good distance away from trees. Large established trees are notorious for being moisture hogs. They’ll suck up moisture in the ground faster than the delicate roots of your blueberries can.
Plus, you’ll have shade and circulation issues to deal with. Blueberries need proper air movement to avoid potential diseases. Large trees in the immediate vicinity can block the wind and weaken your plant’s defenses.
Spacing and Arrangement
There are several ways you can arrange your plants. As mentioned earlier, it’s always best to keep at least two blueberry bushes together to maximize your chances of getting a big harvest.
It’s recommended that you arrange your plants in groups or rows. While they may look great on their own as decorative landscaping, keeping the plants separated won’t do much in terms of growth and fruit production.
Give your plants plenty of room to grow. There should be four or five feet of space between each bush. If you’re planting them in neat rows, make sure there are about eight feet between plant rows.
How to Plant Blueberries
Once you have found the right spots and figured out your arrangement, it’s time to get digging! Take a look at the root system of your nursery plants. The transplant hole should be twice as big as the roots to make room for backfill and future growth. The plant shouldn’t be any deeper into the ground than the container it grew in.
Next, you must fill the hole with some planting mixture. The goal of the mixture is to give the plants a boost of nutrients that can help it remain healthy and establish itself quickly. The best thing you can use for the filling mixture is pure compost.
Backfill the hole with your planting mix and place the blueberry plant on top. Spread the roots out a bit so that they have a clear path to grow. Then, pack the soil on top.
Apply firm pressure to the soil on top of the roots to get rid of any excess air bubbles. You can then give your new blueberry bush a good watering. While it’s tempting to fertilize your plant, please refrain from doing so. You should wait for at least a month before you apply any fertilizers.
How to Care for Blueberry Bushes
It can take up to four years for a plant to start producing some fruit. If you planted a blueberry bush that was already two or three years old, you can expect to start seeing little berries the season after the transplant.
In the meantime, you will need to provide your plant with proper care. Blueberry bushes aren’t going to reach their full production potential until about six years.
You can maximize your harvest and prolong the life of your plant by taking the necessary steps now. Before the plant reaches full maturity, your goal should be to divert its energy into getting established and providing growth.
Here are some ways that you can care for your new blueberry plant.
The root system of blueberry plants is susceptible to dehydration and drying. Remember, the root system is not even a foot into the ground. To prevent any damage, you need to make sure that you’re giving your plant one to two inches of water a week.
Mulching provides several benefits to blueberry plants. For one, it helps to conserve moisture and prevent weeds from popping up. Secondly, the mulch offers some healthy organic materials to the soil for nutrients. Finally, it helps to improve the overall structure of the soil and keeps things cool.
To apply mulch, spread a layer over the roots. It should be two to three inches thick on all sides. Make sure that the mulch isn’t touching the stem of the bush. This can lead to mold and prevent proper air circulation.
As the years pass, the mulch will start to decompose. It’s a good idea to top up the mulch every year.
When it comes to mulching material, you can use anything from pine needles, grass clippings, or sawdust. As long as it’s all-natural and chemical-free, you should be all set.
As with any fruit-bearing plant, pruning plays an important role in the abundance of your harvest. You see, growing fruits requires energy. Pruning allows you to control how that energy is being used.
For the first couple of years after you have planted your blueberry bush, you’re not going to do much pruning. However, you will need to remove any blossoms that develop.
At the three-year mark, you need to start pruning back branches to make way for new growth. This should happen during the winter when the plants are dormant.
Pruning can be an art form all by itself. While it may seem daunting at first, it’s not rocket science. Pruning is all about promoting the growth of strong wood. Bushes will produce fruit on wood that’s at least a one year old. So, a lot of the pruning will be in preparation for the following season.
Start out by getting rid of any dying leaves or branches. Then, remove anything that looks diseased or decayed. The plant is probably using energy to keep those parts alive, so it’s best to just nip them in the bud.
After you have removed any obviously unproductive wood, you can start fine-tuning the plant. Remove older wood that doesn’t produce a ton of fruit. Then, get rid of tiny whisps and weak wood that’s at risk of getting damaged. Thin the heard and keep only your strongest branches.
When you’re pruning, try to keep things open and airy. Dense vegetation will only hinder growth because it blocks the sun and wind. Keeping things light will result in a bountiful harvest.
Fertilizer is great for speeding up the growth cycle and providing your plant with a boost of beneficial nutrients. A standard10-10-10 fertilizer works great. These products have 10 percent nitrogen, 10 percent potash, and 10 percent phosphate.
You can apply your first fertilizer about a month after the transplant. Sprinkle about an ounce around the plant’s root systems. Make sure to avoid getting any fertilizer on the stem.
After that first fertilization, you’ll only need to repeat the step once a year. You should be using one ounce of fertilizer per year. So, the next year, you’ll give your plant two ounces. The following year, it’ll be three ounces.
Continue with this pattern until you get up to eight ounces. At that point, stick with eight ounces throughout the life of your plant.
Some gardeners like to give their blueberry bushes an extra dose of fertilizer directly after pruning. While it’s not necessary, the extra nutrition can help new growth break through the pruning point.
What are Some Pests and Diseases That Affect Blueberries?
After all that hard work to get your plant established, the last thing you want to deal with is damage from pests and disease. Blueberries are appealing to all kinds of nuisances. So, you’ll need to protect your plants from any and all threats.
Birds are fully capable of eating all of the berries on a bush. You have a couple of different options to keep them away. In the past, aluminum plates and foil were used to generate noise. Nowadays, you can get powered deterrents that imitate the sounds of a bird in distress. This naturally keeps the pests away.
Another good option is to invest in a bird net. Nets might not look the prettiest, but they can keep curious birds out.
For most gardeners with blueberry plants, insects aren’t too much of a problem. However, there are a few notable exceptions. Blueberry maggots and blueberry stem borers can damage the plant from the inside out. The same goes for cranberry fruit worms and weevils.
The best way to avoid insect infestations is to check with your local pest control to see what your options are. Be careful that you don’t use any harmful pesticide that could affect your plant and its fruit.
There are several fungal diseases that could plague your plants. The cause of many of these issues is poor air circulation or excess moisture. They can affect the plant itself or the fruit that it bears. Some common conditions include Anthracaose, Mummy Berry, Twig Blights, and more.
Whatever the case may be, you can often address the issue by improving the plant’s environment. Swap out mulch, clear out any debris, and provide plenty of sun exposure. If all else fails, you can use a fungicide that’s specially made for food items.
How to Harvest and Store Blueberries
Contrary to popular belief, blueberries aren’t always ready for picking the moment that they turn blue. In fact, the tiny fruit gets sweeter the longer you leave it on the bush. It’s recommended that you leave the plants alone for a few days after the color has turned.
You’ll know when it’s ready the fruit just pops right off the stem. The berry will release itself without much pressure at all. Usually, this happens between the months of June and August.
So, what do you do with all of those freshly picked blueberries? Well, you can use them to make a compote, create muffins, bake pies, and much more. Alternatively, you can pop them in the freezer for use in smoothies and drinks.
To store your blueberry haul, just spread the fruit out in one single layer on a baking sheet. Put them in the freezer for a couple of hours. When you’re done, each individual berry should be frozen without any sticking. Put the blueberries in an airtight container or bag and keep them in the freezer for up to a year.
Don’t let blueberry plants intimidate you. Sure, they require some extra work to establish and get ready for fruit production. But once you reach that step, it’s smooth sailing.
Blueberry plants can give you an annual supply of fresh fruits for decades to come. So what are you waiting for? The first step is to find and prepare the perfect growing spot for your new plants.
Then, you can start providing the attentive care that these beautiful plants deserve. Before you know it, you and your family will be enjoying the fruits of your labor.