How to Grow Blueberries

Blueberries are among my favorite foods, not only for their delicious taste, but also for their tremendous antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Similar to other berries, blueberries are outstanding dietary sources of bioactive compounds, such as anthocyanins, ellagic acid, flavonols and resveratrol.

Blueberries are an excellent source of vitamins C and K, manganese and fiber. They are highly regarded for their role in helping reduce your risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and vision loss. Blueberries are a delicious treat particularly when plucked from a bush in your own backyard. While organic, store-bought varieties are expensive, you can easily plant a few bushes and harvest your own blueberries.

To ensure your blueberries will thrive, you'll need to invest some time ahead of planting to prepare your soil and select varieties well-suited for your climate. Given these extra steps, if you have blueberries in mind for a spring crop, you'll want to begin your preparations in the fall. Here's everything you need to know about growing blueberries.

Choose a Planting Location Where Your Blueberries Will Thrive

In the video above, David Handley, small fruit and vegetable expert with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, explains how to choose a suitable location for your blueberry bushes. To thrive, your blueberries will need:

Full sun: While blueberries can tolerate shade, you can maximize berry production by planting your bushes in an open area in full sun

Soil drainage: Although blueberry bushes can tolerate very wet soil during periods of dormancy, be sure to choose a site with good drainage to ensure water runoff during the growing season; blueberries will not grow well in water-soaked soil

Water source: Choose a location you can get water to easily and regularly; consider using a soaker hose or trickle-irrigation system

Wind protection: If the offseason months are cold in your area, your blueberry bushes will benefit from a hedge for wind protection, which could be a building, fence or line of shrubs or trees.

If you are considering planting blueberries near an evergreen hedge, avoid (or plant at least 1,200 feet away from) balsam firs because they can exchange a disease called witches' broom1 with blueberries. Since this disease is nearly impossible to eradicate apart from using a toxic herbicide, which I discourage, prevention is your best strategy.

Prepare Your Soil Well Ahead of Time for Optimal Blueberry Growth

Because blueberries demand soil conditions quite different from traditional garden plants, you will need to take action well ahead of time to ensure optimal growing conditions. For your blueberries to thrive, garden experts suggest you will need soil that is:2,3

  • Acidic: A soil pH around or slightly below 5.0 is recommended
  • Compost rich: The best planting environment for blueberries is a 1-to-1 mix of soil from the planting bed (only after you've properly acidified it) and compost or peat moss
  • Loose: Blueberries will thrive in sandy or sandy loam, but will suffer in compacted soil, such as clay
  • Well-drained: As mentioned above, blueberries need well-drained soil to thrive, so choose a location with good water runoff and avoid swampy areas

If your current situation falls short in one or more areas, do not despair. For starters, review these soil restoration techniques. Specific to blueberries, there are steps you can take to create the necessary conditions.4 The key is to start well ahead of time. For example, if you want to plant blueberry bushes in the spring, you must begin preparing your soil the previous fall.

The most important first step is to complete a soil test. Contact your local cooperative extension office or order a test kit off the internet. You need to know if your existing soil can support blueberries, especially given their need for very acidic conditions.

If the area where you want to plant blueberries is currently covered by grass, you will most definitely need to lower the pH. Most lawns have a pH of 6.0 to 7.0. Before you can alter the pH, you will need to kill off the grass first. This can be accomplished by covering it with heavy plastic or a tarp for several months.

After the grass is dead, you can add sulfur, a natural mineral, according to the needs of your soil. The amount of sulfur to use depends on the results of the soil test, and will range from about 1 to 7 pounds per hundred square feet. It's best to indicate on your soil test paperwork your intention to plant blueberries (versus a generic reference to fruit trees or a garden).

When blueberries are indicated, the testing service should be able to tell you the proper amount of sulfur to use. You can buy sulfur from your local garden store or nursery in pellets or powdered form. Mix it into the top 6 inches of soil across the entire planting area.

Choosing Suitable Varieties for Your Climate

Once you've determined your soil will support blueberries, or made changes to ensure this, you can move on to select a suitable variety for your climate.5,6,7 Keep in mind you'll want to plant more than one type of blueberry bush due to the need these plants have for cross-pollination. Blueberry bushes will produce bigger fruit, and more of it, when planted with at least one other variety.

Another reason for planting more than one bush is the flexibility it will give you to extend your harvest. By planting multiple varieties with varying maturity dates, you will ensure a steady supply of berries throughout the entire growing season. No matter where you live, there is a type of blueberry best suited to your region. All four varieties need a period of prolonged cold to set their flowers. Given their unique constitution, some types need less time and coolness than others. The four major varieties include:

  1. Highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum): These large, dark blueberries typically found at your local market are so named because their bushes grow to be about 6 to 8 feet tall. Highbush plants come in either northern — for U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness zones 4 to 7 — or southern varieties, for zones 7 to 10. Because the southern type has a low chilling requirement, highbush can even be grown in my home state of Florida.
  2. Lowbush (Vaccinium angustifolium): This type is super-hardy and ideal for zones 3 to 6, especially in places where winter temperatures plummet below zero. As you might expect from the name, lowbush varieties are ground-hugging, diminutive bushes that grow just 6 to 18 inches tall. These bushes produce small, sweet berries. Most lowbush plants sold in nurseries are wild seedlings, meaning the plant size and fruit characteristics like appearance and taste will vary widely.
  3. Half-high: This variety originated from the desire growers had to produce a large berry consistent with Highbush with the cold tolerance of Lowbush. Half-high bushes grow 3 to 4 feet tall and produce a medium-sized berry. These bushes do well in containers and require less pruning than other types.
  4. Rabbiteye (Vaccinium virgatum or Vaccinium ashei): This heat- and humidity-tolerant type is suitable for zones 7 to 9, which gives southern gardeners a second planting option. Rabbiteye berries ripen later in the season and are smaller than high-bush berries. The bushes can grow upward of 10 feet tall. If you live in a mild climate and are concerned about your soil conditions, you'll be happy to know Rabbiteye bushes are less particular about their soil than the other types.

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