Gardeners often shy away from growing blueberries in their yard or garden because they know the plants need acidic soil to grow and think plants are fussy overall. While it is true, they need a lower soil pH than most gardens have, once the soil is acidified correctly, their primary care requirements are relatively straightforward.
Like any other garden plant, blueberries have particular sunlight and water requirements. They need regular doses of fertilizer, the bushes appreciate minimal competition with weeds, and they like to be pruned routinely. Along with those requirements, it’s essential to watch for pests such as insects and diseases and keep birds from eating all the berries.
If you take care of your bushes correctly, you’ll be rewarded with a bounty of delicious sun-kissed purple-blue berries in mid to late summer. Packed full of flavor and healthy-for-you antioxidants, growing your own plants is well worth your time and effort.
If you amended the garden soil to lower the pH to a level between 4.0 and 5.0, you’ll need to check to ensure it is still in range periodically. If you find the pH has changed significantly, you’ll need to amend the soil again. Sandy soils change pH quicker than clay, and low-rainfall areas may cause the pH to creep higher.
As you did before planting, test the soil with a home soil test kit or have a soil sample analyzed by a lab. Work slowly, adding in a small amount of an acidifying agent such as peat moss or sulfur. Give it a chance to equilibrate, and then check the pH. Repeat this until you reach your desired level.
Like so many other garden plants, they prefer full sun. You’ll see the best yields when plants get a minimum of 6 to 8 hours of sunlight every day. They will tolerate partial shade spots in the garden, especially if they are shaded during the warmest part of the day, but they may produce less fruit.
Keep the garden soil moist at all times but not soggy. Bushes have a thread-like root mass, but they do not have root hairs making them sensitive to fluctuating soil moisture levels. When plants are vegetatively growing, provide 1” of water weekly; during berry ripening, aim for up to 4” weekly. Mulch around the plants to increase soil moisture and minimize fluctuations.
Drip irrigation or soaker hoses are an excellent way to water blueberries. They provide water directly to the soil above the root zone, keeping moisture off of the leaves. This helps to prevent diseases problems on the foliage and minimizes water lost to evaporation.
Be careful not to overwater your blueberries, as this leads to large fruit that tastes bland.
Do not fertilize plants the first year they are planted. The following year start feeding them, keeping in mind nitrogen is the most critical nutrient to provide. Apply a high nitrogen fertilizer in the spring, such as ammonium sulfate or a 10-10-10 formulated for acid-loving plants. Give them a half dose when buds open and another half dose a month later.
Never apply fertilizers containing nitrates such as ammonium nitrate or calcium nitrate as they can be toxic to the plant.
Blueberry bushes are sensitive to competition from weeds because of their shallow root system. To minimize competition, it’s essential to weed the garden bed often, but this shallow root system is also easily damaged by mechanical hoeing. Pull weeds manually when the soil is moist and use mulch or weed block fabric to help keep weeds from germinating.
Pruning helps keep bushes healthy and productive. The first 2 or 3 years only remove dead or diseased canes. After year 3, remove the older, central canes when the plant is dormant, making sure not to prune in the fall. You can thin out some of the fruit buds yearly to get fewer, yet larger, berries.
Unfortunately, there is a long list of problematic insects that can and will bother blueberry bushes. Once an infestation occurs, insects may severely reduce yield and harvest quality if left untreated. To minimize or prevent long-term damage to your plants, regularly scout for insect infestations and treat them quickly when observed.
Common insects include aphids, scale, blueberry flea beetle, blueberry maggot, mites, gypsy moth, blueberry tip borer, blueberry gall midge, and blueberry stem gall wasp.
Different treatments are available depending upon the insect and your gardening practices. Neem oil sprays and spinosad are two standard organic options. Neem oil treats aphids, blueberry flea beetles, and many other insects. Spinosad, made from naturally occurring soil bacteria, protects against blueberry maggots.
When applying any insecticides, be cautious not to harm beneficial insects such as bees.
Diseases, like insect problems, are also prevalent with blueberries. The most common diseases are blight, powdery mildew, brown rot, bacterial canker, crown gall, Alternaria fruit rot, bacterial leaf scorch, mummy berry, and anthracnose. Monitor plants closely for symptoms and treat immediately if diseases are seen in your patch, using recommended organic or chemical fungicides or bactericides.
To help prevent disease problems:
- Keep the center of the bush open to increase air circulation.
- Avoid overhead watering.
- Always discard diseased plant tissue away from the garden; never add it to the compost pile.
Birds can quickly decimate an entire patch when your berries begin ripening, scavenging anything they can reach. The best defense is to cover the whole area with bird netting, making sure to secure it to the ground. Not only does this keep birds from walking underneath the bottom edge, but it also keeps rodents from munching on low-hanging fruit too.
While tempting to pick berries as soon as they start to turn colors, blueberries taste the best when allowed to ripen on the bush fully. Pick fruits 3 to 7 days after they turn entirely blue. When ripe, the skins are dull-looking, the stems are blue (not green or red), and the berries detach easily.