Soil Preparation and Planting
Healthy, thriving blueberry bushes start with research and planning. By the time of planting, you’ve found a sunny location with well-worked, well-drained soil and have weeded it thoroughly. The site is located away from any trees that might steal resources like water and sunlight.
After six months to a year of preparation, your soil is rich with organic matter – and has the right pH level to support blueberries’ unusual preference for acidic soil. You’ve also chosen at least two or three different blueberry varieties – which will help with pollination and spread out the harvest – based on what grows most successfully in your local area.
Now, you have a well-spaced bed, with plants 2 or 2.5 feet apart if you’re growing solid hedgerows, or up to 6 feet apart for individual bushes. You’ve covered the roots with 2-4 inches of bark mulch, acid compost, sawdust or grass clippings to maintain the right pH level. Time to watch your beloved plants grow – and keep an eye out for weeds and pests!
Growth Years 1-2
Your young blueberry plants grow quickly, becoming small bushes within a few months. In the first year, they can grow to 70% of their mature size. However, it can take several years for blueberry bushes to finish maturing and begin producing fruit, so patience is key.
You’re laying the foundation for many years of blueberry goodness – cultivated properly, your blueberry bushes could live up to 30 or even 50 years. In this early stage, you want to control weeds and pinch off any buds or blooms that form, which gives the bushes the time they need to establish good roots and strong branches.
Mature Blueberry Bushes
As your blueberry bushes come out of the dormant winter months, you watch the new wood growth from the previous year begin to leaf out and form flower buds. Ensuring that the bushes are fertilized and have enough water is vital during this stage (and throughout the growing season). The bushes tell you if they’re not getting the nutrients they need – watch for signs like yellowing leaves.
The neutral pH levels many crops require will not work for your acidic soil-loving blueberries, so keep that in mind as you look at nutrition charts and pick your fertilizer. It’s also important to avoid overfertilizing, as too much fertilizer can result in deceptively lush green plants that ultimately provide poor quality fruit. If you follow the directions closely, it will help you keep the right nutrient balance.
Your mature blueberry bushes develop a vibrant leaf canopy and burst into bloom with clusters of six to 12 small white flowers as temperatures continue to rise. That means it’s pollination time, and while many blueberry varieties today are either self-fertile or semi-self-fertile, getting an assist from the local bee population helps your bushes yield more fruit. If you’re really ambitious, you can always start your own beehive – but if youotherwise, simply include plants local to your area in your landscaping, you will attract enough natural pollinators to support most of your home gardening needs.
This is also the stage where you keep a sharp eye out for pests and diseases. The latter is less of a pressing concern for home gardeners – just research any issues common to your area and monitor for those. However, pests like aphids present a common challenge. They can make your plants sticky and harbor viruses, so check under your leaves regularly. If you see signs of aphids, one simple way to address the issue is to make a solution of water and a small amount of detergent, then spray on your leaves two or three times.
Your blueberry bushes transform from an all-white and green display into a rainbow of berries at different stages of ripening. As the bushes are fertilized, the blooms form deep green berries that transition into a translucent light green, a pinkish-red and then the full silvery-blue. Each berry will ripen individually, and you know it’s ready to pick when the blueberries are completely blue from the stem to the calyx, or the “crown” at the opposite side of the berry.
To harvest, you go out each day, put your hands under each cluster of blueberries and “tickle” the plant gently. The ripe fruit comes right off, and the other blueberries stay on the stem to keep ripening. Of course, you won’t be the only one eager to enjoy the fruits of your labor – the local birds will want to get a boost of blue as well. Try putting up a few reflective streamers among your bushes to keep them at bay.
After your harvest is complete, you prepare your blueberry bushes to go dormant during the colder weather ahead; they can survive temperatures as low as -10 °F. Fertilizing again at this stage is important to encourage soil health and deliver nutrients the root system can store, giving your bushes a head start when it’s time to “wake up” again. It’s also important to follow the directions and avoid overfertilizing during this time – you don’t want to see any new growth at this stage.
As temperatures cool, your bushes need time to allow the nutrients stored in the leaves and branches to make their way down to the root system. You know it’s time to start pruning when you see the leaves change color and drop. The goal is to help all areas of the plant receive as much sunlight as possible, so look for old growth to cut as well as lateral growth running across the middle of the plant. By clearing the clutter, you create space for regeneration and new growth. It’s a vital part of the process of constant rejuvenation that allows your blueberry bushes to thrive, year after year.