Growing Blueberries: A Comprehensive Guide to Blueberry Care & Culture

Blueberry bushes are an excellent addition to both edible and ornamental landscapes. They not only produce delicious, nutritious fruit but also enhance the garden’s aesthetic with their glossy, deep green leaves in summer and vibrant scarlet foliage in autumn. Here’s how to successfully cultivate blueberries, particularly in regions like the Rocky Mountain West, where soil conditions may pose a challenge.

Essential Growing Conditions

To thrive, blueberries require well-drained, acidic soil (pH 4.5 – 5.5) rich in organic matter. They should be planted in part shade/shade locations and protected from harsh winter winds. Given that naturally acidic soil is rare in the Rocky Mountain region, consider the following methods to create suitable conditions:

  1. Soil Replacement: Remove existing soil from the planting area to a depth of two feet and replace it with a mix of 50% good commercial topsoil and 50% horticultural sphagnum peat moss. Adding extra compost is also beneficial.
  2. Container Planting: Use half a whiskey barrel or a large 20″ plastic pot with additional drainage holes. Fill with the soil mix mentioned above and sink the container into the ground.
  3. Raised Beds: Build a raised bed (3-4 feet wide and 8-12 inches high) using the same specialized soil mix.

Regularly test the soil’s pH using test kits available from Echter’s or other local garden centers.

Plant Care Tips

  • Mulching: Apply a layer of bark chips to conserve moisture, cool the roots, and suppress weeds.
  • Watering: Maintain continuous but moderate moisture throughout the growing season. Avoid over-watering by checking the soil’s top inch for moisture before watering.
  • Fertilization: Annually amend the soil with compost and regularly acidify with products like Ferti-lome Evergreen Food or Miracid. Start fertilizing in May, just before bloom, and continue as directed on the fertilizer label.
  • Pest and Disease Control: Insect problems are rare but can be managed with Malathion if necessary. To prevent fungal issues, water in the early morning and prune correctly.

Bird Control

Birds such as robins, finches, and starlings enjoy blueberries just as much as we do. To protect your crop, cover shrubs with Ross Garden Netting as berries begin to ripen, following the manufacturer’s instructions.

Harvest and Storage

Blueberries are harvested from July through September. Store them in a refrigerator at 32-35°F to keep them fresh for 10-14 days. Fresh blueberries freeze well and maintain their taste, texture, and appearance for up to two years when stored at 0°F. Always freeze blueberries unwashed to preserve their natural protective coating. They can also be canned or processed into syrup.

Winter Protection

For best results, protect blueberry bushes during winter:

  • Apply 4-5 inches of bark mulch around the base in late November after the ground freezes. Remove the mulch in April.
  • Water during extended dry periods or when there’s no snow cover.
  • Stop fertilizing by the end of July to allow plants to harden off before winter.

Pruning Guide

Proper pruning is essential for healthy blueberry plants and optimal fruit production:

  • Establishment Years (First Two Years): Remove winter-killed and diseased wood. Prevent fruit setting to aid establishment by rubbing out flower buds in early spring.
  • First Pruning Year: Prune in early spring after the bush has been planted for two seasons. Remove diseased or dead wood and any crossing canes. Keep two or three healthy canes.
  • Second Through Fifth Years: Continue the same process each year, maintaining a goal of 12 healthy canes of different ages by the fifth year.
  • Maintenance Pruning (After Fifth Year): Maintain the bush at 12-15 canes, pruning out the oldest canes annually and leaving two or three new ones.

Pruning, along with proper soil pH, drip irrigation, and mulching, significantly impacts berry size and quality. Annual pruning ensures consistent, high-quality fruit production.

In summary, with the right care and attention, blueberry bushes can be a fruitful and beautiful part of your garden. By following these guidelines, you can enjoy bountiful harvests of delicious, nutritious blueberries year after year.

For more gardening tips and expert advice, visit our website at Echter’s Garden Center or call us at 303-424-7979.