With its spring blooms and great fall color the blueberry bush (Vaccinium) is an outstanding ornamental shrub that just happens to produce incredibly tasty fruit as a bonus.
There are 130 different species of native and wild blueberries in North America so there is one for every garden.
This easy care plant is a natural choice for those interested in organic gardening methods. They are relatively pest free and well-drained, acidic soil amended with plenty of organic compost will provide all the nutrients they need.
Here are a few tips that will help you grow blue ribbon blueberries.
- When selecting a blueberry bush to grow in your garden it pays to do the homework. To find the right species and variety for your location check these characteristics: required chilling time (the amount of time when the temperatures are above freezing but below 45 degrees F), yield size, growth habit, and susceptibility to late or early freezes. The most commonly grown blueberry varieties are Highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum), which are hardy to zones 3 through 8. Other commonly grown types are Southern Highbush (V. corymbosum x V. darrowi) which are hybrids adapted to the warmer regions as they require less chilling time to flower and fruit, Lowbush (V. angustifolium), which is better adapted to the cold of the far north and Rabbiteye (V. ashei), which grow in the south.
- Cross-pollination is required for some blueberry varieties and it is recommended for all varieties. To ensure good pollination plant at least 2 different varieties that bloom at the same time.
- Blueberries ripen early, mid or late season depending on the variety. Adding more varieties that ripen at different times can extend the harvest for a longer period of time.
- Blueberries are insect pollinated so increasing the number of pollinators can be very beneficial. Attracting many different kinds of bees and other pollinators is important as blueberry flowers vary in size and shape and so different species of pollinators are better at pollinating the varied flowers.
- Plant your berries in full sun; they can grow in partial shade but there will probably be reduced flowers thus reduced harvest. Space Lowbush 2 feet apart, Highbush 5 feet apart and Rabbiteyes up to 10 feet apart and set them slightly deeper than they are planted in the nursery pot. Their flowers can be affected by early fall frosts and late spring frosts so don’t plant them in a frost pocket.
- Soil is the most important consideration when preparing to plant blueberries. They prefer soil that is moist, well-drained, high in organic matter with a pH in the range of 4.5 to 5.5. The pH level is important so get your soil tested and go the extra effort to correct the pH before you plant. Periodically re-test the soil and make corrections to maintain the proper acidity over the life of the planting. You can lower the pH with a fertilizer blended for acid loving plants or mix 40% peat to 60 % soil in the planting hole. To help maintain the desired pH level mulch with wood shavings, sawdust or pine straw.
- Blueberries have shallow roots and are sensitive to waterlogged soil and fluctuating moisture. They lack the root hairs normally found on roots which are the primary site for absorption. They need to be moist but well-drained with 1 to 2 inches of water per week and supplemental watering during drought periods. Mulching will conserve moisture.
- Blueberries are a good choice for organic gardening because they will readily take in nutrients provided by organic fertilizers. High quality compost is a good blueberry fertilizer and may provide all the fertility they need. The roots are not very extensive so apply all amendments under the plant canopy to assure that they reach the roots. Foliar feeding can be helpful if the plants are stressed.
- It is not necessary to prune blueberry shrubs for the first 2 to 3 years. You may want to remove blooms to encourage vigorous growth. After the plants become established prune in late winter. Remove dead, weak and crossing branches and thin out older branches to force new growth and keep the plant open to sunlight. Any cane over 2 inches in diameter should be removed. Try to maintain about 12 canes per plant that are a mix of different ages. Flower buds are produced on the tips and down the canes of second year old shoots and the most fruitful canes are 4 to 6 years old and 1 to 1 ½-inches in diameter at the base.
- Blueberries need a growing season that averages 160 days. The berries will ripen over several weeks and will need 2 to 4 pickings at harvest. Allow the berries to fully ripen on the plant. Their full flavor and aroma actually peaks a few days after they turn blue. Store them short term in the refrigerator. To freeze spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in the freezer for about an hour then pack into plastic freezer containers.