Blueberry bushes add year-round visual appeal to a landscape and provide a bounty of tasty fruits each summer. Getting started is easy — if you have a sunny location and well-drained soil, you can grow blueberries — but there are a few things to know first. For the best advice on how to grow blueberries, I turned to Dr. Lee Reich, an Upstate New York gardener and horticulturist with more than three decades of blueberry-growing experience.
Lee is a national gardening columnist for the Associated Press and an author of several books, including “Weedless Gardening,” “The Ever Curious Gardener,” “Grow Fruit Naturally” and “Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.” He grows blueberries, and much, much more, on his “Farmden,” his New Paltz, New York, property that he describes as more than a garden, but less than a farm. He’s been a repeat podcast guest, including three years ago when he offered his tips on planting, caring for and harvesting blueberries. This week’s episode is an encore presentation of that informative and enlightening conversation.
In our chat, Lee happily walks you through everything blueberry — from preparation and planting to maintenance and harvest. For even more details on Lee’s tips for blueberry-growing success, you can also check out the show notes from the original airing.
Before proceeding with Lee’s tips on growing blueberries, a quick reminder that you can sign up to be notified when enrollment opens for my upcoming Online Gardening Academy™ course, Growing Epic Tomatoes, co-led by Craig LeHoullier. This brand new course will turn you into a tomato-growing expert in no time.
The many varieties of blueberry all have the same basic needs. Bushes should be planted in full sun, which means the area gets a minimum of 6 hours of direct sunlight daily. The soil should be well-draining and full of organic matter, and it should be acidic — ideally with a pH between 4.0 and 5.5. Blueberries also enjoy consistent moisture, with soil that’s as wet as a wrung-out sponge, so regular watering is necessary.
The Three Types of Blueberry Bushes
The three primary types of blueberry are lowbush, highbush and rabbiteye, and there are a number of varieties of each.
Lowbush varieties are the hardiest of the three. Growing just 12-18 inches in height, lowbush blueberries withstand snow cover and frigid temperatures and do well in zones 3-7.
Highbush varieties can be grown in zones 4-7, and are further divided into northern highbush and southern highbush types. Southern highbush is less cold tolerant and best grown in warmer climates. Highbush blueberries grow up to 7 feet in height.
Rabbiteye is native to the southeastern United States, can be grown in zones 7-9, and is more tolerant of less-than-ideal soil conditions. Rabbiteye varieties are tolerant of extreme heat and can grow up to 12 feet high.
There are blueberry hybrids available too. For example, half-high types combine the hardiness and low stature of the lowbush with the heavier fruiting quality of the highbush.
Perfecting Soil for Growing Blueberries
Most edibles prefer a soil pH that is close to neutral, or 7.0, but blueberries are acid-loving plants. They will perform best in soil that is in the 4.0–5.5 pH range. Getting soil into the correct range starts with a soil test.
Inexpensive soil tests are available through your local county extension office, but the results may take a few weeks, so don’t delay getting a test if you want to plant blueberries soon. When the results do come, they will include both the pH and a detailed description of the soil’s fertility, with recommendations of what soil amendments to add.
Acidic organic materials, such as pine needles or oak leaves, will have little impact and are not sufficient to acidify soil for the long-term. What you’ll really need to add is sulfur, an organic soil acidifier available as a powder or pellets.
Pelletized sulfur is both less expensive and safer for the home gardener, while powdered sulfur costs more and can be breathed in.
The soil test results will detail the correct amount of sulfur to add, but also keep in mind that sandy soil will require significantly less acidifier than clay soil. Soil will naturally return to its native pH level given time, so repeat the soil test every two years and adjust the pH accordingly so it remains where it needs to be.
Lee recommends spreading the sulfur over the soil where you intend to plant blueberries. As you dig the planting hole, the sulfur will incorporate with the soil.
Beyond acidity, blueberries prefer well-aerated, consistently moist soil that’s high in organic matter. While compost is generally the go-to for adding organic matter to soil, in the case of blueberries, it’s not what they need and can even be detrimental. Compost is rich in nutrients, and blueberries don’t thrive in rich soil. Lee recommends peat moss instead. Peat moss is slow to break down, so it will last a really long time, and it’s low in nutrients.
Lee starts by digging a planting hole and then mixes a generous amount of peat moss — a bucketful — with the soil he just removed. Once the blueberry rootball is in place, he backfills with the soil-peat moss mix.
The final step is to add a layer of organic mulch on top of the soil to keep the soil from drying out and to suppress weed seeds. Because blueberries have shallow roots and are susceptible to weed competition, mulch is extremely important here.
How to Water Blueberries
Get freshly planted blueberries off to a good start by providing adequate water — but not too much. The aim is an inch of water over the course of a week. If it hasn’t rained that much, make up for it with supplement watering. Drip irrigation is the best watering method for blueberries and shrubs of all kinds. Drip irrigation applies water at a slow and low rate, which allows for the best absorption by plant roots.
Blueberry bushes should be pruned while they are dormant, in the period before leaf buds have formed on the stems. Prune out any branches that are crossing (rubbing against each other) or arching toward the ground.
Once a blueberry stem hits 6 years of age, it will become less productive over time. But the bush will continue to produce new shoots from the base of the plant. For the healthiest plants and bountiful crops, prune out these older stems to make room for the new shoots.
Once your bush is about 6 years old, look for any stems that are 1 inch or more in diameter, and prune those all the way to the ground. Then look for the new shoots from the last growing season and select four to six of the sturdiest to keep. Prune out the remaining new shoots.
I provided more details on pruning in an earlier podcast, and you can watch my how-to video to learn the fundamentals of pruning and common mistakes.
Dead branches and stems may be pruned at any time throughout the year. If a stem dies for any reason during the growing season, the sooner you cut it out the better.
Nutrient Maintenance for Blueberries
Blueberry bushes don’t like a lot of nutrients, they do need some nutrients. Lee recommends applying soybean meal, alfalfa meal or cottonseed meal once each year to provide a little organic nitrogen. Two pounds of meal per 100 square feet of bushes is Lee’s preference.
Blueberry Pests & Diseases
Blueberries are resistant to pests and diseases, but there are a few to keep an eye out for.
Mummy berry (Monilinia vaccinii-corymbosi) is a wind-borne fungus that causes the fruit on a bush to mummify and fall to the ground before ripening. To combat mummy berry, remove and discard the mummified berries to avoid further spread. To avoid reoccurances, refrain from adding those mummified berries to your compost pile, and at the end of the season, spread a 1–2 inches of mulch around the base of the bushes to create a barrier between the plant and any fallen berries, so the fungal spores can’t spread.
Spotted wing drosophila (SWD) is a type of fruit fly that’s a common blueberry pest. Although most fruit flies are drawn to overripe fruit, the SWD eats underripe fruit. You can avoid them by planting early-ripening blueberries. The SWD doesn’t strike until early August.
Blueberry maggot (Rhagoletis mendax) is usually first noticed in its adult, fly stage. Traps are an easy and organic treatment. Take any red or green orb (Lee uses a McIntosh apple) and apply Tangle Trap, a sticky substance, to create the trap. Hang the orb trap among the blueberry plants, and the maggot flies will stick to it and die.
Both blueberry maggot and SWD maggots develop inside the blueberry fruit. If you have any concerns that there could be maggots in your blueberry crop, refrigerate the berries for 48 hours before eating them. The refrigeration will kill any maggots in the berries. You can also test berries by mixing a teaspoon or two of salt in one cup of water. Submerge the berries in the solution for 10–15 minutes. If there are maggots present, they will crawl out of the berries.
Yellow-necked caterpillars (Datana ministra) strip the foliage off blueberry bushes. Covered in long white hairs and with large yellow bands around their heads, they are very noticeable on naked bushes. Apply Bacillus thuringiensis, an organic control commonly known as Bt, to eliminate the caterpillars in a way that is safe for humans, pets and non-caterpillar insects.
Birds, deer, raccoons and other wildlife love blueberries just as much as we do. This inspired Lee to build his “Blueberry Temple, with sides constructed of three-quarter-inch metal mesh supported by posts and rebar. As the berries begin to ripen, Lee drapes heavy-duty netting over the top to keep the birds and other animals from devouring berries before Lee can pick them at peak ripeness. Netting can also be simply draped over the whole bush.
How to Harvest Blueberries
Blueberries aren’t actually ripe once they turn blue, but the blue coloring is an indication that they are almost ripe. Leave the berries on the bush for a few days more and they will taste even better.
To test for ripeness, Lee “gently tickles” the berry clusters. The gentle touch will cause perfectly ripe berries to fall away from the stem while unripe berries remain attached.
Check bushes daily during those warm summer days. Once blueberries ripen, they will be quick to fall to the ground if you aren’t around to pick and enjoy them.
I hope you enjoyed learning Lee Reich’s top tips for growing blueberries. If you haven’t already done so, you can listen to this episode now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
What are your blueberry growing challenges and successes? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier joins me in leading this course on how to grow healthier, productive tomato plants and how to overcome tomato-growing challenges. You can sign up to be notified when enrollment opens.
“Weedless Gardening” by Lee Reich
“Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden” by Lee Reich
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