Blueberries are a fun and relatively easy plant crop for home gardeners. Here are 5 tips and tricks to help you grow them successfully.
Watch your soil
Soil is perhaps the most important of all the factors that make or break a blueberry planting. Blueberries can only grow within a very specific pH range. pH is a measurement that describes whether a substance is acidic or basic. Soil pH plays a factor in all plant growth, but it is particularly important when it comes to growing blueberries. Blueberry plants grow best in very acidic soil, with a pH range from 4 to 5. Many of the native soils in the southeastern United States from East Texas to the Carolinas, are naturally acidic. Many of these soils do not need any amendments to make them more acidic, though in the cases of pastures that have been limed, some amendments may need to be needed.
In parts of the west and north outside of the native range of conifer forests, including the blackland soils of Texas, the native soil pH is usually too high for blueberries. Blueberries will not simply fail of thrive in more neutral or even basic soils – the plants will die completely.
The best way to know what your soil pH level is to take a soil sample and send it to a university soil lab. There are also home test kits available online and in some stores. If your soil is not acidic enough for blueberries, either grow the blueberries in raised beds (or containers) with acidic soil is added, or amend your native soils to bring the pH to the proper level.
Several different companies sell garden soil that is appropriate for blueberries in raised beds or containers. To amend your native soil, add sulfur or aluminum sulfur the season prior to planting. Till this in the top 6 inches of the soil and test the soil again. Apply those amendment at the rates recommended on the packaging.
Water those plants
Blueberries are very shallow-rooted. Unlike fruit trees and many other plants, blueberry roots grow near the soil surface and rarely go much deeper than 6 to 8 inches, even on mature plants. For this reason, they are especially susceptible to drought stress. Blueberries will need at least an inch of water each week during the heat of the summer. During that time of year, it is very hard to over water blueberries in well-drained soils. Plan on giving your blueberries water at least twice a week, and maybe even more and more frequently on new plants. While there are occasional summers when we get adequate rainfall, I always plan on watering the blueberry plants during the summer because of their sensitivity to dry soil. If the new growth on blueberry plants is wilting when the plants are not in direct sunlight (such as the morning or evening), then the plants need water.
The source of water for blueberry plants is also important. I learned this the hard way a couple of years ago when I used our community water to water several dozen blueberry plants I had planted for our own use. I watered the plants deeply twice a week during a dry spell in the middle of summer. Even though I was watering them, all but a handful of those blueberry plants died. At first I thought it had something to do with the plants – which we had grown on another location. But no one else was having issues with those plants. Then one day I turned on the water and I smelled chlorine coming from some of the hoses. That’s when I remembered what an old timer told me several years ago – our community water where we live has a high pH due to the chlorine that’s added to it. That high pH, he said, will eventually kill blueberry plants. I replanted the planting the next season, and the plants have only been watered with either rainwater, or water we bring in from the creek. And they’re all doing well!
So watch the water you use to water your blueberry plants. Rainwater, natural pond/creek water, or well water may be a better option to keep the soil around the plants at the proper pH level.
Pruning isn’t hard
Thankfully blueberries don’t require regular pruning. They only need to be pruned if they show signs of disease on a specific branch.
But this made the list because there’s one trick that a commercial grower showed me that I thought I would share with you. Most people (myself included) get excited about the berries on their little blueberry plants. This commercial grower told me that they prune off the berries and even the blooms on their small plants. He said if you do this for 2-3 years, that the plants will put all of their energy into growing leaves and stems. in the 3rd or 4th year, the harvest of blueberries will be much greater than the harvest that would have been collected from the smaller plants.
Fertilize those babies!
Blueberry plants are very sensitive to fertilizer when first planted. It’s best to wait at least 30 days after planting to apply any type of fertilizer do you were young blueberry plant. If the blueberry plants are planted in the winter, wait until spring to fertilize. Fertilize blueberry plants each spring with 16-8-8 fertilizer or something similar. Blueberries planted in soil that is rich in organic matter should not need any fertilizer beyond the spring application.
Mulch mulch mulch
Because the roots of blueberry plants are in the top several inches of soil, blueberry plants benefit from a layer of organic material applied as a mulch. Mulch should be applied to blueberry plants at planting. Due to their sensitivity to soil pH, acidic mulches really benefit blueberries. One of my favorite mulches for blueberries is pine straw. It’s free and easily available from our property. Another good one is pine bark mulch. Both pine bark mulch and pine straw have a lower pH, which helps maintain the proper soil pH in the blueberry root zone.
In college and graduate school, I worked as a yard man for an older couple. One thing the older man would have me do is apply cottonseed hull to the base of all of their azaleas and the couple of blueberry plants that they had. Cottonseed hull is also in acidic mulch that can be used. I’m not sure how readily available it is, but in some rural areas it might be available at feed stores.
You could also make your own blend of compost, manure, and other acidic mulch material. This works as both a mulch and a slow-release fertilizer.
Blueberries are a fun and relatively easy crop to grow 🙂