Updated: August 5, 2020
I‘ve been around blueberries plants all my life. Growing up in Maine, the next door neighbor had 30 bushes. But we didn’t need to get our blueberries from the neighbor. There were three or four places near town where you could just go and pick them because they grew wild.
In fact, during the depression, when my father was a child, his family made a living picking and selling blueberries for pies. In Maine, they were all over the place.
When I moved to New Hampshire, there was a pick-your-own farm down the road. But I just had to plant my own.
Now I have six different varieties, including low bush berries that are the best tasting, but don’t “give” very much. So I know a thing or two about blueberries, including how to plant, feed, water, prune, pollinate and pick them.
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Getting started, how to grow blueberries
First off, blueberries take five or six years before they are mature enough for full production. You can speed up the process by buying two- or three-year old plants at a nursery.
There are three general types of blueberry plants: (1) low bush, (2) high bush and (3) rabbiteye.
- Low bush. These generally have sweeter fruit than the others. The berries are smaller than high bush berries and plants usually grow to be less than two feet tall. The berries are smaller, too. It takes a lot of picking to fill a container. If you live where it is cold, low bush berries are very winter hardy and will handle cold winters especially when covered by snow.
- High bush. These berries are larger and the bushes grow to be as much as six feet or more. They are less hardy than low bush, but still do pretty well in winter if in a sheltered spot. Get high bush if you want more and bigger berries.
- Rabbiteye. These bushes are primarily for warmer climates. Rabbiteye bushes can grow to 25 feet and can tolerate dryer soils, but they are only hardy enough for Zone 7 and above. The best thing about them is berries are very big, so it doesn’t take too much picking before you have enough for a pie. Recently, there have been other warm climate blueberries, in addition to Rabbiteye, that have become available.
As I mentioned before, I grow six different varieties of blueberries. The blueberries varieties that are consistent, heavy producers are Northland high bush and Patriot high bush. These two are pretty good tasting, but not quite as sweet as the low bush, a.k.a., wild blueberries.
Planting and soil conditions
You should plant blueberries as you would any other shrub or bush. Keep in mind, however, they need moist, well drained soil with a pH of 4.5 to 5.2.
If your soil tests indicate a pH above this, you should seriously consider if it is worth trying to grow blueberries on your land. It’s not easy to lower the pH of your dirt and keep it that way.
It’s probably not worth the trouble. Grow something else that works in your native environment.
If you’ve already planted blueberries and suspect you are having a problem because the pH is too high, one of the early indicators is leaves turning red in the summer. If this happens to you, consider pulling out the plant and replanting it in a big pot.
Many kitchen gardeners with soil pH that is too high for blueberries grow them in large pots. This is so they can successfully amend the soil.
If you try this, be sure to put the pots in a very sheltered spot during the winter because pots don’t protect the roots from cold. Some people even put the pots inside their hoop house for the winter.
Another important point is that you should plant at least two different varieties in order to get a good amount of berries. The bushes will grow more berries if they cross pollinate with a different variety.
You may get some berries if you have only one variety, but you won’t reach the plant’s potential. Three or more varieties are even better.
Also, avoid the mistake that I made in my first planting: I planted early, middle and late bearing varieties as many of the experts advise. The problem was the flowers of the different varieties didn’t bloom at the same time so cross pollination wasn’t as successful as I would have liked.
It wasn’t until I planted more varieties that bloom at the same time that I really started to get lots of berries.
Another mistake I made was planting the bushes too close together and too close to large trees. The bushes ended up fighting each other and the trees for nutrients in the soil.
Make sure that you plant the bushes at least five feet apart. If you have the room, it’s better to give them even more space because they will grow quite a bit. The more room you give their roots, the more berries you will get.
The last point about planting is you should plant them in full sun, but be sure the ground stays somewhat moist during the summer.
This type of location is not easy to find. Usually when a location is in full sun, it gets pretty dry during the summer.
If the bushes run out of moisture, the berries will wrinkle up and not taste great. So try to find a good location.
Once they are planted, growing blueberries is pretty darn easy. You want to keep the area around the plants as weed free as possible. Blueberry plants do not compete well with weeds.
Mulching and feeding
But do not dig into the soil to cultivate because the roots are right on top. It’s best to keep the weeds down by mulching heavily.
Pine needles, oak leaves and wood shavings from pine, oak and hemlock trees make great mulch because they keep the soil acidic.
I added large quantities of pine and oak mulch from some trees that I cut down one year. The blueberries enjoyed this enormously, turning a very deep shade of green. But they didn’t produce a ton of berries.
This was probably because there was too much nitrogen in the soil from the fresh mulch. It wasn’t until a few years after that they started to produce more heavily.
What I learned from this is you don’t need to do much to feed blueberry plants. A little low pH mulch is all you need.
Annual pruning of established, high bush blueberries will help increase production. The very best time to prune is late winter.
You don’t really need to prune until the plants are full grown. After that, prune any dead or broken canes, or any branches that rub against each other.
After the plants are about 20 years old (ha ha if you make it to that point), you’ll want to gradually renew the plant by cutting the older wood and letting the new growth take over. I still haven’t had to do this.
If the blueberry has even a little red on the ring around where the stem meets the berry socket, it’s not fully ripe.— Suburban Hobby Farmer
Pruning low bush blueberry plants, on the other hand, involves cutting as much as half of the older canes to the ground each year.
Since new canes don’t produce berries, you’ll be harvesting from the leftover older canes. Next year, remove the other half and harvest from the rejuvenated canes.
Blueberry bushes benefit from high moisture. When I was growing up in Maine there was a patch that actually grew in wet land that dried up during the summer. There were a ton of berries in that patch.
So watering blueberry plants is sometimes a good thing. No question that if you water, your berries will likely be plumper and may even taste better.
But I have well water with a high pH. So I let rain water my plants. I am afraid that the well water would temporarily change the pH enough to adversely affect the plants.
If you have city water and you are having a dry summer, you probably should water some to keep the berries from drying out.
The only other area of maintenance is encouraging pollinators.
In my area, small wild bees seem to do the bulk of the work. Mostly these are sweat bees. This is probably because blueberries are native to this area and native bees have been feeding off blueberry blossoms for a very long time.
You might benefit from honey bee hives in your area.
Growing wildflowers will often attract native bees, but don’t be surprised if it’s different bees that pollinate the blueberries.
The blueberry flower is kind of specialized, so not all bees can take on the task.
When to pick
Determining when blueberries are ripe is more difficult than it seems. They often turn blue a week or so before they are fully ripe.
It’s best to wait a week after they turn blue before you pick them. When it comes to hundreds of blueberries per bush all ripening at different times, this is easier said than done.
The real secret of blueberry picking is to look at where the stem meets the socket. If the blueberry has even a tiny spec of red in the circle around the socket, it’s not ripe.
Related articles you might enjoy:
- Growing Organic Apple Trees
- How to Get Unlimited, Free Strawberry Plants from Your Patch
- How to Grow Cucumbers in a Hoop House
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