Summer blueberry picking is a memory that will last a lifetime! Planting a blueberry bush in the garden will add both food and fun to your life. These wonderful plants produce so many juicy nuggets of sweet-tasting blueberries that you’ll want to plant more and eat them all season long. Learning how to grow blueberries will be a boon for your whole life.
In recent years the demand for blueberries has grown so much that new cultivars have been created by the University of Florida in Gainesville. It’s now possible to plant these cultivars in zones 7 and up.
In the past 15 years in the US alone, these berries have become so popular that blueberry consumption has doubled. There’s a wide array of blueberry types available for planting. You can try planting a small compact bush variety, or a huge hedgelike type that can really take up space in your yard.
Blueberries are so wonderful that even your family dog can eat them. A single cup of blueberries contains 80 calories, and 25% of your daily vitamin C! The unique compound that gives blueberries their wonderful color, that lovely deep dark blue, is called anthocyanin. This compound comes with a multitude of health benefits from lowering blood pressure to helping motor function.
Acid-loving blueberries make for a surprisingly lovely plant, particularly when they mature into a large bush. But even the dwarf plants are really lovely (and they grow great in containers, too).
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Quick Care Guide
|Scientific Name||Vaccinium corymbosum, Vaccinium darrowii, Vaccinium angustifolium, Vaccinium virgatum|
|Days to Harvest||2-3 Years|
|Light||6-8 hours a day|
|Water||1 inch a week|
|Soil||Acidic; pH of 4 to 5.5|
|Fertilizer||10-5-5 acid-loving plant fertilizer|
|Pests||Spotted wing drosophila, Japanese beetles, Western flower thrips|
All About Blueberries
Blueberries have long been eaten in North America; they’re native to present-day Canada where they even still grow wild to this day. They are devoured the whole world over with a number of varieties having been developed so that gardeners in warmer climates can enjoy their juiciness. The blueberry bush isn’t just one type of plant. There are highbush varieties (Vaccinium corymbosum, Vaccinium darrowii), lowbush (Vaccinium angustifolium) varieties, and rabbiteye (Vaccinium virgatum).
Blueberry bushes vary in size depending on the variety. Highbush varieties reach 4 – 8 feet in height while lowbush varieties are much bushier and about 2 feet tall. Rabbiteye blueberries are real giants in the garden, able to reach 15 ft. in height – these bushes produce huge crops for decades!
Blueberry bushes grow from rhizomes underground, sending up stems that develop into woody branches and eventually produce fruit. Buds develop on the wood and push out oblong pointed leaves or small tubular white or pink flowers. The flowers, once pollinated, drop and form small round green berries which start to turn the characteristic deep blue blueberry color.
Each year, blueberry bushes push out new stems that after 1-2 years will grow and develop blueberries. While no one branch lives for the entirety of the plant’s life, it is the rhizomes underground that keep this plant thriving over the years.
In early spring, a flush of new buds appear on woody growth and eventually form leaves and flowers. Flowers generally only appear on wood that is at least one year old, so any new sprigs that push themselves out of the earth need to be tended to, but won’t produce fruit. Depending on the variety, your flowers will turn to fruit and start producing anytime between late spring and early fall. It’s mid-season and late-season cultivars that on average give the biggest yields.
In the fall, leaves will start to drop (some varieties keep their leaves during winter) and the blueberry bush will start ‘acclimation’ or getting ready for dormancy. They don’t de-acclimate or start pushing out new growth until the following spring and only if they’ve had enough chill hours. Chill hours are non-continuous hours of cold temperatures below 45 degrees. Once the plant has reached the number of chill hours it needs to know winter is over, it will start its annual bloom cycle all over again.
Types of Blueberries
Depending on where you live, you may only be familiar with one or two types of blueberries, but there are several varieties that thrive in different types of climates.
Lowbush varieties are found in the wild in many parts of the Northern US and Canada. These low-growing bushes are great for an afternoon of berry picking with family or friends. While not as common as highbush farms, there are some lowbush patches managed by farmers. These blueberry varieties grow almost like a ground cover as they reach about 24” in height and produce from zone 2 to zone 7. Some people say that these berries are the sweetest types of blueberries out there.
Highbush blueberries are the type most commonly found on your local grocery store shelf. These are large and dependable bushes reaching up to 8 feet in height usually and can grow in a wider variety of zones than lowbush varieties. As they can produce mid-season and early fall, it’s a great idea to plant multiple types of highbush plants to extend the crop. Half highbush types of blueberries like the Sweetheart Blueberry can yield up to 15 pounds of blueberries in a year and can have multiple harvests – first in early summer and again in the fall.
Southern highbush varieties are a recent invention coming out of the University of Florida at Gainesville. With so many northerners living in Florida, there had long been a demand for fresh blueberries, but with traditional varieties of berries needing a cool dormant season in order to kick start the growing season, a whole new variety of blueberries needed to be invented.
These highbush varieties do well in gardens that have fewer chilling hours (usually 150-200). There is a great range in size of southern highbush varieties, and planting several varieties can mean harvesting for months on end. In areas where they can thrive in the ground in acidic soil, they can grow up to 8 ft. wide and tall, other varieties that are more suited to container gardening will stay a compact 1-2 ft. wide and tall their entire lives. Varieties like Bushel and Berry’s Peach Sorbet can thrive in outdoor climates year-round in warmer regions like California. Growing in a more compact bush form, the Peach Sorbet berry is perfect for containers where you can control soil pH – both for warm regions that have clay soil and for regions that are prone to extreme weather events.
Rabbiteye blueberries are native to the Southeastern states of the US like Georgia and South Carolina. They’re some of the largest blueberry plants around growing up to 10 ft. tall. They’re accustomed to long hot summers and actually need long periods of heat in order to fully mature. They do best for gardeners in zones 8 and up as they cannot tolerate temperatures significantly below freezing. Rabbiteye blueberries are a bit different from conventionally grown blueberries, they have darker fruit with larger seeds and what can feel like grit inside them.
Blueberries are best planted in mid-December to mid-February as bare-root plants. Bare root plants are just like established plants but are transported without dirt surrounding their roots. This is to make transport significantly cheaper and to allow gardeners to introduce the roots to the native soil. Before planting, keep roots evenly moist but not wet. Find an area that receives 6-8 hours of full sun per day and amend the soil if necessary.
For gardeners planting in areas with heavily alkaline or clay soils, try growing in containers to have more control over soil acidity and drainage. Alternatively, if your soil type is more alkaline or neutral, you can amend your soil with ammonium sulfate to bring down the soil pH. Soil pH is incredibly important to the blueberry plant, it will often fail to produce if the soil pH is above 5.5. You can monitor your soil pH by buying a low-cost soil test and taking regular readings of your soil.
For gardeners growing in the ground, it’s best to plant blueberries in rows 3 feet apart for Southern highbush varieties, and 5 feet apart for rabbiteye. It’s best to calculate the width of your mature bush and add 2-3 feet to its width to determine row spacing.
To plant, dig a hole twice the size of the unpackaged root ball and gently break up the root ball, spread the roots out evenly in your planting hole, and make sure it does not fall further into the hole. Keep the dirt that you just removed and amend it with peat moss and any soil acidifier if necessary. When placing your bare root blueberry in the ground, be sure to keep the roots and above-ground stems at the same height as they were packaged; a buried stem or exposed root can cause significant damage to your blueberries. After gently placing the roots, backfill the area with native soil mixed with compost or other mulch high in organic matter.
After planting, add a 2-4 inch thick layer of mulch like pine needles or wood chips around the base of the berries. Extend the mulch out to at least 4 feet away from the base of the plant.
Bare root blueberries are already 1-2 years old. However, it’s likely that you won’t get a crop until the blueberry plants are about 3 years old.
One of the easier ways of growing blueberries is to grow them in containers or raised beds where it’s simpler to control the soil conditions. If growing in containers, try to find a container at least 18 inches in height and width, although larger is better, and then look for a dwarf variety. If growing in raised beds, a bed with a depth of 18” is necessary, although over 24” is preferred.
To plant, fill your containers with a mixture of acidic potting soil (soil for camellias and azaleas works perfectly), and an amendment to make it well-drained (like perlite). You can also use peat moss, pine bark, or ammonium sulfate in your mixture to help lower the pH. Be sure your beds or containers are in a sunny location as blueberries need a minimum of 6-8 hours of sunlight a day and mulch around the base of the plant to help retain water.
While blueberries don’t need a whole lot of tending to once established, it’s essential that they’re planted in acidic soil and in full sun to get their best start in the garden. One of the easiest ways to control your blueberries’ environments can be to plant in containers.
Sun and Temperature
Blueberries thrive in the sun, but they may have a problem with scorching temperatures if grown in a desert or wherever there could be a severe heatwave. Blueberries require sunlight in order to turn blue. They grow best with 6-8 hours of sunlight a day.
While able to grow in zones 3 through 10, not all varieties are well suited to every region. Be sure to find a blueberry plant that is right for your garden climate. If you’re unsure as to your garden requirements, try contacting your local cooperative extension office to find information about your growing area.
All blueberries need a certain number of chill hours, that is, hours under 45 degrees in order for that berries to know that it’s time to exit their dormancy period and start pushing out new shoots and growth for spring.
Depending on the variety, you may need to provide winter protection for your blueberry plants. Each variety is different, so be sure to keep track of what type of berries you plant and if they survive cold winter temps. Container-grown blueberries can be brought inside, but in-ground berries can be shielded from cold snaps by placing row covers over plants and heavily mulching around the base of the plants to keep their roots from freezing.
Water and Humidity
Your berries need a decent amount of water and will need even more if grown in sandy soil. Try to give them at least an inch of water a week during the first two years of their life, and increase to 2 inches a week once your berries have doubled in size. It’s best to water in the morning on a soaker system or drip irrigation, and use a mulch to retain moisture. Certainly stay away from watering every day or even every other day as one of the few diseases to attack berries is a form of root rot.
Once your berries enter their dormancy period, reduce watering to once a month if at all. Depending on rainfall, try to keep the soil somewhat moist, but not bone dry. You may need to monitor and hand water to achieve this.
Growing blueberries require a good amount of organic matter and a soil pH of between 4.0 & 5.5. To help your blueberry plants thrive, perform a soil test to find out what level of soil acidity you currently have and take measures to bring it into optimal soil pH levels. If growing in containers, you won’t need to perform a soil test however you will need to choose acidic soil (like soil for camellias or azaleas) that can provide the right acidity range. If you choose to grow in your native soil, you may need to amend it with peat moss and apply sulfur or other soil acidifying agents.
Blueberries require at least 18” of soil with good drainage, preferably more. As they are susceptible to Phytophthora root rot, any soil that holds onto water for too long may end up killing your plants. Be sure to plant blueberries in a medium that will continue to have good drainage by amending backfill in clay soil with vermiculite, perlite, or other drainage improving medium.
As voracious producers of deliciousness, blueberries do need to be fertilized every year with the exception of their first year after planting.
Try to fertilize your blueberries in early spring even before your plants form buds and get ready to push out this year’s growth. The plant needs to have adequate nutrients in order to produce a healthy crop of berries. Try using a 10-5-5 acid-loving plant fertilizer or berry-specific fertilizer and apply over the surface of the soil across the entire root system, not just at the base of your plants.
Spring is also the right time to apply mulch around the base of the plant, but only after a granular or liquid fertilizer has first been applied. In late spring, apply another round of fertilizer to help with summer growth. Avoid fertilizing in the fall at all costs. This can upset your plant’s natural seasonal rhythm and encourage it to produce leaves and buds in the fall when it should be preparing for dormancy. It can cause permanent damage to your plants when temperatures drop with your berry bushes unprepared for cold temps.
Blueberry pruning is necessary for large bushes, especially when they’re over 3 years old. As berries don’t grow on young stems, but instead on older wood – it’s vital to have an understanding of what to look for when it’s time to cut back growth to increase the harvest, shape your plants and cut out disease and decay. We have an in-depth guide to blueberry pruning if you need additional insight.
To propagate a blueberry bush, try locating a plant in your area that is already thriving. Chances are, that variety will do well in your home garden as well. Wait until the plant is dormant, and cut a stem of first-year wood about 6-10 inches long. If desired, you can use rooting hormone to encourage swifter root development. Place the cuttings in a rooting medium like peat or vermiculite at a depth of 2 inches and wait. Keep the medium evenly moist but not wet. Blueberries easily root.
Harvesting and Storing
Blueberries are a delight for children and families to pick right out of the garden! Here are a few tips to help get the most out of your harvest!
Blueberries are ready to harvest when they turn a deep blue color. If you pick them while still green or light blue, they will not continue to ripen after picking. While there are tools that can speed up a harvest like a berry picker or blueberry rake, for most people in the home garden, you’ll want to pick by hand.
When you see dark blue berries ready to pick, gently take your hand and roll the berry between your fingers so that it detaches from the stem. It may take a while to pick all of your fruit off of your blueberry bushes, but that can be part of the fun! Especially if you have children who would love to help out!
After harvesting your plants, you have lots of options on how to keep your berries! For people who want to eat them fresh, simply wash them and store them in the fridge in a breathable container. They should last 2-4 days.
Alternatively, they can be flash-frozen on a cookie tray where they will freeze in just a few minutes if they’re spread out and not touching one another. They’re easily dehydrated for adding to oatmeal or energy bites down the road, and they make wonderful jams and pie fillings!
Blueberries are a relatively easy plant to grow without too many pests and diseases affecting them. There are a few key needs that your blueberry bushes have, but as long as they’re satisfied, growing blueberries should be a relatively easy endeavor!
The most important care you give your plants starts with soil acidity. While it’s possible for blueberry plants to survive without enough soil acidity, it’s unlikely they’ll produce fruit under these conditions. If your plants aren’t producing, test your soil to find out its pH levels. If it’s too alkaline, add sulfur or another soil acidifier to amend.
Nutrient deficiencies are possible in all fruit. Make sure your berries have enough fertilizer to produce healthy berries as well as stay beautifully green.
Western flower thrips attack blueberry plants before the harvest. They eat the plants and flower buds that damage the year’s harvest. Small, golden tubular bugs, these pests can be fought by an organic insecticide such as insecticidal soap or pyrethrin once identified.
Japanese beetles are large flying beetles that eat the blueberry foliage. This makes winter damage unfortunately easy. Try placing a row cover or another barrier in between the plants and these flying predators. Applications of beneficial nematodes to the soil can reduce the number of beetle grubs that overwinter in the ground around plants.
Spotted wing drosophila are small golden fruit flies. They damage the berries by laying their eggs in them and making the berries turn soft and pruney. They can be trapped using a simple vinegar trap, or they can also benefit from growing under a physical barrier like a row cover. Spinosad and pyrethrin are approved organic pesticides that can help prevent fruit fly infestation.
Blueberries are prey to one main disease. Phytophthora cinnamoni is a fungal root rot that thrives when soil is too moist. Once this disease hits, there is no real cure beyond pruning off dead, rotten root material and transplanting your plant to an area with better drainage, but this can risk spreading the fungal pathogen so isn’t advised. Setting up your garden for success with well-draining soil is the best way to prevent this disease. Some mycorrhizae and soil bacteria can aid plants in resisting fungal pathogens.
There are other diseases that may impact your berry plants, but as a general rule, they will do mostly cosmetic damage. Powdery mildew is a bit annoying but easy to combat with neem oil or a copper fungicide. A variety of leaf spots can occur, including anthracnose, but most of those can also be treated with copper fungicide as well. With these issues, it’s important to treat them so they don’t spread to other nearby plants, but the blueberries generally survive them just fine.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Are blueberries easy to grow?
A: Blueberries are a relatively easy addition to the garden. They need acidic soil and regular water, but beyond that, they are a low-maintenance plant.
Q: How long does it take for a blueberry bush to produce fruit?
A: Blueberry bushes generally produce fruit after 3 years, but produce a full-sized crop after about 5 years.
Q: Do I need 2 blueberry bushes to get fruit?
A: While many blueberry varieties are self-fertile, and can produce fruit on their own, you will get larger yields per bush from planting several bushes.