How to Grow Blueberries
Copyright 2011 McGroarty Enterprises Inc.

Blueberries are a good choice for the home gardener who wants homegrown fruit since the plants require little space and are relatively easy to care for. Blueberries are also very healthful, another reason why blueberry growing is becoming more popular. If you want to grow blueberries in your own backyard, there are a few things you'll need to know.

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There are three basic types of cultivated blueberries, along with the native lowbush blueberries. Maine is famous for their wild blueberries, and these are the native lowbush berries. Cultivated blueberries are either highbush, rabbiteye or southern highbush varieties, or a cross of any of these types. 

If you want to grow blueberries, you should choose a variety that is suited for your climate. Gardeners in northern climates should choose a highbush variety, or a half-high hybrid that is crossed with the native lowbush plants. Rabbiteye and southern highbush blueberries are more suited to the warmer climate of the South. If you're not sure what variety to plant, your county's Agriculture Extension Agent should have information on varieties suitable for your area.

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For larger blueberry yields, a gardener should be growing two or more varieties. It is not absolutely necessary to have more than one variety for pollination, but if the plants are allowed to cross-pollinate, the berries will be larger and the plants will produce a larger yield. Consider growing Dutch white clover as a groundcover between the plants. The clover doesn't need to be mowed to keep it looking good, and the flowers will attract bees to pollinate the blueberry blossoms.

Choose a sunny spot to grow your blueberries. Blueberry plants require full sun to produce a good crop. Blueberry bushes need to grow in moist, acidic soil with a pH between 4.0 and 5.0. Before planting blueberry bushes, the soil should be tested to determine its pH. Your county Ag Extension Agent can help you with soil testing also. If the pH is above 5.0, apply granular soil sulphur to acidify it, following the application rates on the package. If the soil pH is below 4.0 apply ground dolomitic limestone to sweeten it a bit.

For optimal blueberry growing, the soil should be kept moist but not soggy. If the soil in your backyard does not drain well, consider creating a raised bed for your blueberries. You can learn how to create a raised planting bed here: http://freeplants.com/preparing-raised-planting-beds.htm  

The soil should also be high in organic matter. When preparing the planting bed, mix a shovel full of well-rotted compost or peat moss with the soil in each planting hole to increase the organic matter.

Plant blueberry bushes in the fall, or in the spring as soon as the soil can be worked. The plants should be spaced four to six feet apart. If multiple rows are to be planted, the rows should be ten to twelve feet apart. To grow blueberries without losing the crop to a late frost, avoid planting them in low-lying areas that are more prone to a frost. Choose an area with good air circulation to help avoid fungal diseases.

Blueberry bushes have shallow root systems which make them sensitive to fluctuations in rainfall. To grow the best blueberries, ensure that your blueberry bushes receive at least an inch or two of water each week through the end of August. Unless the soil is very dry, stop watering after early September. Apply a thick layer of mulch around the plants to conserve moisture in the soil and suppress weeds. 

Blueberry growing requires some patience, as the plants do not become fully productive for about six years. The plants will begin to produce fruit in their third season, and the crop will increase a bit each year until it reaches its full potential in the sixth season. When the plants begin producing berries, it may be necessary to protect the fruit from hungry birds who love blueberries as much as you do. Bird netting will keep the birds from devouring the crop before you get a chance to harvest the berries.

For their first three years, blueberry growing is easy. The plants generally require very little or no pruning for the first three years. Branches that are damaged, dead or weak can be pruned off while the plants are dormant. 

After their third year, you'll grow better blueberries if the plants are pruned annually. When the plants are dormant in late fall, winter or early spring, remove any diseased, damaged or spindly branches, using a sharp pruners. To make harvesting easier, remove any branches that begin to grow less than a foot from the ground. 

Blueberry bushes produce their fruit on fairly young wood. Branches that are the most productive are between four and six years old. Branches that are eight years old or more should be removed to encourage the plant to produce more productive branches. To grow the largest, tastiest blueberries, remove all but two to four of the new branches that were produced the previous season. 

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A well-pruned blueberry bush should be narrow at its base with a fairly open center to allow the sun to reach each blueberry while it is growing. There should be a good balance of branches of different ages throughout the plant. Ideally, 15-20% of the branches should be young canes with a diameter of less than an inch, an equal amount of older canes with a diameter of two inches, and 50-70% of the branches should fall in the middle of that range.

If you've been blueberry growing already but you want to grow more blueberries, the plants can be propagated from softwood cuttings. This page shows how to propagate this deciduous plant from softwood cuttings: http://freeplants.com/soft%20of%20decid.htm  

In addition to providing nutritious berries, blueberry bushes are also an attractive addition to a landscape. The bushes are quite lovely when they're in bloom in the spring, and in the fall the foliage turns bright crimson, another good reason to grow blueberries.

by Michael J. McGroarty
Copyright 2011