Growing Blueberries at Home
Blueberries bring a unique combination of delicious summer fruit along with striking, ornamental beauty to the fall garden. They are relatively easy to grow in the home garden and, with minimal care will thrive for many decades and provide you with abundant fruit every year. Blueberries are considered to be a long-term crop as it takes between 8 and 12 years for them to reach maturity. With proper care, they can live for 20 to 40 years.
All cultivars are self-fertile but will produce better crops if more than one variety is planted. Choose varieties which are the most winter hardy for your area.
Start a year ahead by eliminating weeds and acidifying the soil. Blueberries prefer soils with a pH of about 4.5. Several pounds of sulfur are needed per 1,000 square feet to lower the pH one unit. Test your soil in advance and begin acidifying the soil a year ahead of when you will plant the blueberries. We plant our blueberries in a peat moss mixture and add elemental sulfur to lower the pH. Select a sunny location with well-drained soil that is close to where irrigation is readily available. It is important to keep the root zone moist throughout the growing season.
Blueberry plants may be purchased in containers, or with root balls, usually 2-3 years old. Older, larger plants will produce faster but are more expensive. Purchase your plants from a reliable nursery to ensure virus-free stock. Avoid plants from big-box stores which may not be acclimated to your area. We dip the root balls in Agrigel, (available from Nourse Farms) a polymer which attracts and holds water so essential for establishing a young plant.
Mulch for Blueberries
Blueberries have dense, shallow roots and do best with 2-4 inches of mulch over the roots to conserve moisture, prevent weeds and build organic matter. We use clean wood chips, but bark mulch, acid compost, pine needles or grass clippings all work well. Pure sawdust tends to be too dense and will mat down, preventing water penetration. Do not use bark, sawdust or bagged mulch from cedar or redwood trees which has tannins which may harm the young plants.
Care for Your Blueberries
It’s a good idea to allow blueberries to get well established before allowing them to bear fruit. We usually remove most of the flower blooms the first year or two. Beginning the third or fourth year, start to prune your blueberry plants to avoid over-fruiting which results in small fruit or poor growth. Aggressive, annual pruning will stimulate healthier, more vigorous plants and will promote growth and berry production. As with many perennial shrubs, remove 1/3 to ½ of the wood from your plants each year. Remember that blueberries fruit on second year wood.
Once established, blueberries like acid fertilizers such as rhododendron or azalea formulations. We fertilize once in early spring and again in late spring. Never fertilize after July 1, as this will promote new growth that won’t harden off before winter. Water thoroughly after fertilizing. Blood meal and cottonseed meal work well as organic fertilizers. Avoid using manures as they can damage the plants.
Netting will protect your blueberries from birds. Robins, cedar waxwings, catbirds and blue jays love blueberries, know precisely when they are just ready to pick, and can aggressively consume all your berries in a few days.
Enjoy your bountiful crop for many years!
An excellent source for blueberry plants is Nourse Farms