Blueberries are perennial flowering bushes that are highly popular as fruit and nowadays – as a superfood. They are found to be very rich in antioxidants and vitamin C and thus, heavily promoted these days as a healthy snack (or food supplement), although I’m sure almost everyone has tasted delicious blueberry jam at least once in their lives! But did you know you can readily grow them in your garden too?
Types of blueberries
Although there are actually many species of blueberry plants, the type that is grown most frequently, whether for fruit or as an ornamental garden plant, is high bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). It is hardy to zone 4, and grows from 6 to 12 feet tall if it isn’t pruned. The low bush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) remains under 2 feet tall and could be grown as a nice ground cover plant; it is hardy to zone 2. Rabbit-eye blueberry (Vaccinium ashei is a high bush species that, unlike Vaccinium Corymbosum, does not require thorough chilling in the winter and will bear fruit even in Florida and the Deep South. It is best suited to zone 8 and below. Meanwhile, Vaccinium ashei is a quick growing shrub that can grow up to 20 feet without pruning, but ripens later than northern blueberries.
Blueberries love somewhat moist conditions, but with no prolonged flooding. To ripen, they need good sun exposure throughout the day. The soil should be friable and well drained, somewhere with a pH of about 4.5, although blueberries can grow in anything from 3.5 to 5.5.
Adequate soil acidity is important for blueberries’ so make sure to test your soil if you’re unsure whether it is acidic enough. For alkaline soil, you will either need to pick another spot, or acidify the soil by adding in a lot of organic matter that is acidic in nature, such as peat moss, rotted leaves, or decomposing pine bark. These will also help maintain the moisture levels in the soil that blueberries require.
It’s easiest to buy dormant blueberry plants online, or your nearest nursery that are aged between 2-3 years. If you’re planting bare root plants, make sure they have a healthy root system to begin with, and don’t let the roots dry out, keeping them moist up until the time you plant them.
For cool climates, plant in the beginning of spring and for milder climates, plant them in late autumn. You can plant in holes 18 inches deep and wide. High bush berries should be planted 6 feet apart (further for rabbit-eyes), so the whole bush can be sun-ripened, but if you’re making a hedge, then 3 to 4 feet apart will work. Dwarf high bush varieties can also be planted 3 to 4 feet apart, or they can be planted in containers. Plant low bush berries 2 feet apart.
Blueberries can be planted at the same depth – or an inch deeper than – where they were growing previously; spread the roots out in the soil, firm lightly, and water well. Apply a thick layer of mulch (4 inches or so) of an acidic organic material such as pine needles or shredded bark. Gently remove the flower buds the first year, in order to encourage the plants to put their energy into growth.
Nutrients for blueberries
Blueberries need to have sufficient moisture during the first year they are growing, and when fruit starts to form. At blossom time, feed them by layering the top with compost, aged manure, or any suitable organic commercial fertilizer meant for plants that like acidic soil. Don’t simply add amendments by digging them in, because this may injure their surface roots. Just take off the mulch layer, and apply nutrients to the soil surface, water it down, and then replace the mulch layer.
Pruning blueberry bushes
Blueberries, especially the high bush types that grow tall, really should be pruned to keep the plants at a manageable size, and to make sure the berries get enough sun to ripen properly. Prune right before they are about to leaf out, and remove deadwood from the previous winter at the same time.
Thin out any old gray canes (stems) with lots of little twigs that don’t have any visible fruiting buds, by snipping them at the plant’s base. Remove any horizontal, short, or weak canes. What you want are the newer, redder canes; keep six or eight good bearing ones on each bush. Shorten tall, straggly canes and remove weak, short, twiggy growth from tips. Don’t accidentally remove twigs with fruiting buds though; these are fatter than those leaf buds.
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