How to Care for Blueberry Bushes
Blueberries thrive in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 10, and when cared for properly, the plants can produce fruit for up to 20 years.
Once you decided to add a blueberry bush to your yard, you’ll need to choose from the four varieties: highbush, lowbush, hybrid half-high, and rabbiteye. However, the highbush is the most popular with homeowners.
As the name implies, highbush blueberries can grow quite large—up to 8 feet high. The lowbush blueberries hug the ground and grow only up to about 18 inches high.
Although blueberries can grow well in any type of soil, they prefer acidic soil between 4 to 5 pH. Amend soil as necessary to achieve the correct levels. When possible, plant blueberries as early in the spring season as possible.
How to Plant Outdoors
- Choose a planting location that is sheltered from extreme elements that is mostly sunny. Although blueberries can withstand shade, they tend to yield better crops when exposed to sun.
- Select a healthy blueberry bush from the local nursery or home center. If possible, look for a bush that is no more than three years old, suggests the Old Farmer’s Almanac.
- Dig a hole about twice as wide and just about as deep as the container of the blueberry plant.
- Spread apart the roots gently, and set the plant in the hole. Backfill the plant as necessary, keeping the plant at about the same depth as it was in the pot. Tamp soil down around the roots tightly.
- Water the plant thoroughly.
- Apply a mulch or pine straw around plant to discourage weeds and help retain moisture levels.
- Space plants in rows, spaced 5 feet between plants. If planting more than one row, leave about 8 feet between rows for adequate circulation and to accommodate vigorous growth.
- Apply a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer one month after planting, between 6 to 12 inches from the plant.
- Water plants about 1-2 inches deep each week.
- Expect plants to fruit two to three years after planting. The yield will grow from year to year as the plant grows larger.
How to Plant in a Pot
Blueberries planted in pots thrive just as well as those planted in the ground, and tend to be less prone to diseases and are easier to protect from pests. You can also move them indoors to protect from harsh weather if needed.
- Select a larger container with adequate drainage holes. Blueberries like adequate moisture, but can’t stay overly wet.
- Fill the about half way with potting soil designed for acid-loving plants, (or soil with a 4 to 5 pH level.
- Spread apart the roots gently, and set the blueberry bush in the new container.
- Apply more soil in the pot, and tamp it down to ensure good root contact.
- Water the plant thoroughly.
- Apply mulch to keep moisture levels up.
- Set the pot in a sunny location.
Since pruning encourages new growth in blueberry plants, prune plants during the dormant season, in later winter to early spring. Remove dead or broken branches first.
Pruning techniques will depend upon the variety you planted.
Highbush & Rabbiteye plants:
Remove weak-looking branches, branches close to the ground, and open up the inside portion of the bush. Prune rabbiteye varieties less severely than the highbush.
Cut all the stems down to the ground level; keep in mind that the plant will not produce fruit that year.
Since blueberries are a cousin to the azalea and rhododendron, you can use potting soil intended for those plants.
Fertilize bushes every year after planting with a balanced fertilizer. Start with 1 ounce of fertilizer and increase by 1 ounce each year (up to 8 ounces) suggests the Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Pinch blossoms from your blueberry plant the first year after you plant it to discourage fruit growth. This allows the plant to focus all energy on vigorous growth, and will yield a higher fruit harvest in later years.
Protect container-planted blueberry plants from harsh winters by applying a burlap sack over the entire container.
Humans aren’t the only ones who enjoy snacking on blueberries, birds also enjoy eating blueberries, so you’ll need to cover the bush with netting to protect the berries. Be sure to gather netting at the bottom of the plant, or birds and other pests will still snag your berries.
How to Harvest
Blueberries normally ripen on the bush between July and August. Berries should be plump and firm, dark blue with a powdering white “bloom” on them. Remove blueberries from the bush a few days after they turn dark blue. You’ll know they are ready to be harvested when they practically fall off in your hand.
Use a shallow container to hold your blueberries as you pick them. Ripe blueberries are very soft, and susceptible to crushing.
How to Freeze
- Place unwashed blueberries on a cookie sheet in a single layer. (If you do wish to rinse off the blueberries, dry them off with a paper towel before setting them in the freezer.)
- Remove away any stems or leaves that you may have gathered.
- Set the cookie sheet in the freezer for at least 5 minutes. Blueberries should only take about 4 minutes to totally freeze.
- Remove frozen berries from the freezer, and transfer to a large sealable freezer bag. Frozen blueberries will hold for up to 10 months.
- Rinse berries once you are ready to use them.