Illustrated Guide to Growing Blueberries

Reader Contribution by Michael Feldmann
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Photo by Pixabay/elizadean 

Sweet, juicy blueberries aren’t just delicious. They are rich in nutrients, antioxidants, fiber and vitamins. Fortunately, for very little effort, blueberries are easy to grow—if you have the right blueberry growing conditions. See our beginner’s guide to growing blueberries. That will learn everything you need to know about growing blueberry bushes, from varieties and propagation, to planting, caring, harvesting, and preserving.

Blueberries are enjoying increasing popularity again among gardening enthusiasts, since cultivated blueberries have been cultivated with easy and problem-free gardening. They originally come from North America, where breeding work has made great strides over the course of the 20th century. The extremely easy-care bushes not only give us a full harvest of their delicious berries after a few years, but are also very decorative ornamental shrub with their attractive blossoms and autumn colors. Blueberries has white or pink flowers in spring, bright foliage in autumn and green-red bark in winter.

Choosing the Right Variety

Blueberries come in a variety of colors blue, green, red, or pink. Illustration by Paul Anderson

The blueberry bush is an excellent choice for the home gardener as a flavorful food crop or as an ornamental landscape shrub. There are five main blueberry varieties grown in the United States: lowbush, northern highbush, southern highbush, rabbiteye and half-high. Of these, the northern blueberry varieties are the most common blueberry varieties grown worldwide.

Lowbush blueberry varieties. As the name suggests, lowbush blueberries are shorter and more true shrubs than other tall blueberry varieties. This blueberry varieties usually growing below 1 ½ feet in Hight. When growing Lowbush blueberry varieties, you need to plant more than one cultivar for a bountiful fruit yield. Thise varieties of blueberry bushes need to be little pruning, and you need to cut the bush every 2-3 years. Top Hat is one of the lowbush blueberry varieties that is commonly grown as a small ornamental shrub, but can also be grown in containers. Ruby carpet is also one of the lowbush varieties that grows in USDA zones 3-7.

Northern highbush blueberry varieties. As their name suggests, northern highbush blueberries are higher and are native to the eastern and northeastern United States. This is a very bountiful blueberry variety with lighten-blue berries and stunning Automn colors. They generally grow between 5-9 feet in height. When growing this varieties is very important to note that they require the most consistent pruning. Northern highbush blueberries are best grown in USDA zones 5 –7. These blueberry bushes grow without much maintenance and have few pest problems. If you are interested, a list of highbush varieties includes:

  • Bluecrop
  • Bluegold
  • Blueray
  • Duke
  • Elliot
  • Hardyblue
  • Jersey
  • Legacy
  • Patriot
  • Rubel

Southern highbush blueberry varieties. This variety is a hybrids of V. corymbosum and a Floridian native, V. darrowii. It can grow between 6-8 feet in height. Southern highbush blueberry varieties were created for growing it in regions with mild winters as they take less chilling time to break the bud and flower. The bushes bloom at the end of winter, so frost will harm production. Therefore, southern highbush blueberry varieties are best suited for areas with very mild winters. Some of the southern highbush varieties are including:

  • Golf Coast
  • Misty
  • Oneal
  • Ozarkblue
  • Sharpblue
  • Sunshine Blue

Rabbiteye blueberry varieties. This name came from the fact that Immature berries in this variety are often pink, like a rabbit’s eye. Rabbiteye blueberry varieties are perhaps the highest of all blueberry varieties, they can grow up to 6-10 feet in height, and are native to the southeastern United States. This variety was created to grow in areas with hot and long summers. Unlike northern highbush blueberry varieties, Rabbiteye varieties are more susceptible to cold winter damage. These varieties are very easy to grow in fertile, acidic soil and in Zones 7-8. Some of the Rabbiteye varieties are including:

  • Brightwell
  • Climax
  • Powderblue
  • Premier
  • Tifblue

Half-high blueberry varieties. These varieties are a cross between northern highbush and lowbush blueberries and can withstand temperatures of 35-45 degrees Fahrenheit or 1-7 degrees Celsius. A medium sized blueberry bushes, grow 3-4 feet height and can grow excellent in containers. This varieties require less pruning than highbush varieties. Some of the half-high varieties are includes:

  • Bluegold
  • Friendship
  • Northcountry
  • Northland
  • Northsky
  • Patriot
  • Polaris

Planting Blueberries in the Garden

A raised bed works especially great for blueberries. Illustration by Paul Anderson

Fresh Homegrown blueberries are one of my favorite summertime snacks, with a sweet-tart flavor that’s perfect for enjoying out of hand, blended into a pancake batter, baked in a pie, or cooked down and made into jam. And however, growing blueberries is very easy. In fact, with proper planting and care, nearly anyone can become a successful blueberry gardener.

To grow and enjoy your blueberries you just need to familiarize yourself with their needs such as soil, location, and others.

Soil considerations. The soil is probably the most important factor that determines the success of the blueberry harvest. Most fruits and vegetables love neutral soil, as can be found in most gardens. Blueberries, on the other hand, needs a very special soil as a moor and forest plant, it is adapted to acidic soils and only feels at home here. The perfect conditions for blueberries are pH values between 4.0 and 5.0. But these are not achieved in most gardens, which is why you have to use some tricks when growing blueberries. Instead of placing the plant in normal garden soil, a slightly larger hole should be dug. Special blueberry soil or rhododendron soil can then be filled into this and the plant buried in it – so the blueberry feels comfortable in your garden even without forest soil.

Choosing the right Location. Blueberries prefer a sunny, sheltered location in the garden or on the balcony. The aroma and the fruit size are significantly influenced by intense sunlight. Blueberries are also growing in partial shade, but the fruits are much smaller and the yield is lower than in the sun. The blueberry bushes are hardy and can stand in the same location for many years. When planted in a pot, it is important that there is no waterlogging in winter and that the pot is protected with winter protection materials, but that the shrub is outside all year round. Note that for blueberries to be grown successfully, the soil must be acidic.

Choosing the right neighborhood plants. When planting blueberries, you should not only look to the right soil: the right neighborhood plants are also very important. Although blueberries are self-fruiting, it’s best to grow different varieties at the same time. Blueberries are also compatible with other plants: the lingonberry which is related to the blueberry and the large-fruited cranberry, are ideal as neighboring plants for blueberries. But also, the rhododendron, currant, and gooseberry are all great plants to grow with blueberries. With all planting partners, however, a sufficient distance between the individual plants must be maintained.

Distance between the blueberry bushes. Blueberry bushes should not be planted too close together. There should still be space between the bushes, this ensures adequate ventilation of the leaves, which prevents plant diseases. It also makes it easier to pick the ripe blueberries at the harvest. There should be a minimum of 2 feet distance between the plants when planting. If you layout the bushes in rows, leave about 5-8 feet between the rows. This will prevent you from compacting the soil directly around the bushes with your feet during harvest and other work on the plants.

Planting. Once the right conditions have been created for your blueberries, it can finally be planted. Autumn and spring are considered the ideal season for planting blueberries. However, autumn is preferred by most gardeners as it gives the plant more time to get used to the new location and reduces the risk of the plant becoming overbearing during summer fruiting. Dig a hole about 60 cm deep and one meter wide and attach a foil to the sides so that no chalky discharge comes into the plant. Put the blueberry plant in and fill the hole with your special blueberry soil or rhododendron soil. Then the plant should be properly watered so that it can grow well.

Fertilizing, Mulching, Watering and Care

Blueberries are probably one of the best fall color bushes, their fall color ranges from yellow to orange and red to purple. Illustration by Paul Anderson

Fertilizing. Fertilization is necessary and is also very important part in growing blueberries. Start with the first fertilization in the spring. A berry fertilizer or rhododendron fertilizer is perfect for this. The second time you fertilize at the beginning of July, but make sure that the fertilization does not occur later than the end of July. Adding nutrients too late leads to soft shoots that are not mature and therefore susceptible to frost.

Mulching. Mulching is the insider tip if you want a good blueberry harvest. A layer of bark mulch leaves or tree needles imitates the raw humus blanket that would occur in the natural habitat of the blueberry. This has three advantages: On the one hand, the mulch layer helps to keep the soil acidic in the long term, which is very beneficial to the lime-sensitive plant. Furthermore, the mulch layer acts as a natural fertilizer and gradually releases nutrients so that the blueberry remains supplied over the long term. Finally, the mulch layer also acts as a protection against evaporation. The blueberry consumes a lot of water, especially in summer, and quickly loses its fruit when it is dry – a good layer of mulch can work wonders here.

Watering. Blueberries need uniform soil moisture for growth and harvest. In the first few weeks after planting, it is very important to water according to the plant’s needs. This means that enough water is required for the shrub to establish itself in the new location and form new roots, but no standing water must prevail at any time. How often you need to water depends on rainfall, temperatures, and soil conditions. In the second year of standing, the plant still needs uniform soil moisture, but care is less intensive.

Pruning. When growing blueberries in the garden, it is very important to prune them correctly. In the first few years after planting, any pruning measures can be dispensed with, because the growth is initially quite small. After 4 to 5 years, you should make a taper cut in early spring. Cut off the older shoots directly on the ground. Leave young shoots on the plant because the fruit set takes place on the annual side shoots. Particularly old or diseased branches should be carefully removed, and very sprawling shoots can be shortened. However, it is important that only individual branches are removed – the plant cannot withstand radical pruning. Annual pruning is not necessary; but older plants will thank you with the formation of new shoots and a rich harvest.

Caring for blueberries is very easy but it is very important to prune them correctly. Illustration by Paul Anderson

Weed control. Blueberry gardeners should maintain a weed-free area around their blueberries by maintaining a couple of feet of soil around them. This helps prevent perennial weeds from constantly entering blueberry patches through underground rhizomes or through airborne seeds. For minimal maintenance, gardeners can plant a groundcover in the area to prevent weed growth.

Pest and disease control. Blueberries react with bleaching of the leaves (chlorosis) on calcareous soils and only set a few fruits. They cannot tolerate drought either, so on hot days you have to pour enough soft (low-lime) water. In rare cases, shoot deaths and root rot occur — affected plants cannot be cured and must therefore be cleared and the soil replaced before new blueberries can be planted in the same place. There is no need to fear pests like aphids, but birds love the delicious berries. This can be remedied by a net that protects the bushes during ripening.

Propagation

Propagating blueberries is actually very easy and can be done by nearly anyone. The two most common ways of propagating blueberry bushes are layering and cuttings. They are both very easy and effective ways.

Propagation by layering. Lowering individual shoots is a tried and tested method of propagating many plants and also works very well with blueberries. It is possible all year round, provided there are sufficiently long young shoots. You bend individual shoots downwards in an arc and cover a section of shoots with soil after you have fixed it in the ground with a tent hook. If there are leaves on the shoot, they must first be removed in the appropriate area, otherwise, fungal infections can easily develop upon contact with the soil. A lowered shoot forms new roots at the deepest leaf node. It can be cut from the mother blueberry plant in the fall or spring if it is sufficiently rooted and transplanted to the desired location.

Propagating by lowering is a tried and tested method of propagating many plants and also works great with blueberries. Illustration by Paul Anderson

Propagation by cuttings. Propagating by cuttings can be one of the fastest ways of starting a new small blueberry bush. This method is also very productive, as you can grow several young plants from only one bush. Blueberry cuttings are best collected in the morning and planted as soon as possible to avoid drying out. It is very important to collect strong healthy 4- to 6-inch-long cuttings. It is best taken lots of cuttings to ensure that some will root.

Propagating by cuttings can be one of the easiest ways of starting a new blueberry plant. Illustration by Paul Anderson

Remove the leaves on the lower 1/3 of the stem. Make sure that all cutting equipment and pots are thoroughly washed and even better disinfected. Dip the stem in the rooting hormone or willow water and stick in a readymade hole in the soil. The hole should be made earlier with a pencil or finger. Firm the soil and cover with a transparent plastic bag with a few holes to serve as a green house. A upside down jar or plastic bottle could also be used. Here the goal is not only to keep high humidity but also adequate ventilation. Lifting or opening the cover once a day will help reduce mold and diseases. Set the pot in indirect light and a temperature of 60-65 degrees. A heat mat with a temperature of 70 degrees will make roots appear faster. Roots should appear in several weeks. Transplant to a more nutrient rich soil when a good root system has developed.

Harvesting Berries

Blueberry bushes yield fruit a year after planting, but it may take a few years to bear a full harvest. Illustration by Mary Peterson

The blueberry picking season can be from late May to mid-August, depending on the variety and local climate. The harvest usually takes several weeks, as their fruits are never ripe all at the same time, but the only one after the other in stages. Basically, you should wait until the blueberries are really dark blue before harvesting because only then will they fully develop their flavor. In addition, fruits harvested too early and therefore unripe no longer ripen. Most of the time the bushes bear fruit in the year after planting – but a full yield can only be expected after a few years.
Preserving

Blueberries taste best when they are freshly picked. Unfortunately, however, they are not very easy to store, and they only last a few days in the fridge’s fruit compartment. For this reason, it is better to freeze or process larger quantities and thus preserve them. A very popular option is to boil your blueberries into delicious jam, or use it for baking pies, cakes, cupcakes, or cookies.

Blueberry Jam Recipe

This blueberry jam recipe is not only quick and easy, but also can be stored up to one year.

Probably the best way to preserve blueberries is to make jam from them. Illustration by Paul Anderson

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups of fresh blueberries
  • 1 cup of white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice

Directions:

  1. In a large bowl, crush your blueberries in portions until you have 4 cups of mashed blueberry.
  2. In a saucepan, combine blueberries, sugar, and lemon juice. Stir on the low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to high and bring the mixture to a full boil. Boil, stirring frequently, until the mixture is at 220 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. Gelling test: Take a tablespoon of blueberry jam and put it on a plate. If the mixture is firm, the jam can be filled into preserving jars. However, if the mass is not firm enough and slips off the plate, it must be cooked for a few more minutes. (If the desired consistency is not achieved, simply add a little more sugar).
  4. When the blueberry jam is ready fill it into sterilized jars and allow it to cool completely. As the blueberry jam is cool, close tightly with lids.

This blueberry jam recipe is very quick, easy, and tastes delicious. You can eat this homemade blueberry jam with almost every meal. Bread, pancake, yogurt, or by it itself. It all depends on how much you love freshly cooked blueberry jam.

Photo by Michael Feldmann

Michael Feldmann is a farmer and writer in Oklahoma, who studies agriculture and has worked as a journalist for magazines and newspapers around the country. His writing has been published in Acres USA, Rural Heritage, Farming magazine, Farmers Weekly, Permaculture magazine, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and as a column in Poultry World. Read all of Michael’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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