Everyone I know goes gaga for blueberries ( Vaccinium spp. and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 3–9). Whether it’s because they think the plants make attractive additions to the landscape (due to their plethora of spring flowers and excellent fall color) or because they swoon over fruit that’s delicious and nutritious, it’s hard to find a gardener who wouldn’t love to plant a blueberry in their beds. But, although easy to grow once established, getting blueberries off to the right start with proper planting and fertilizing is vital to ensure a plentiful harvest.
Test the soil and adjust the pH to provide the proper environment
If ever there were a time that a soil test is essential, this is it. If you don’t already know the properties of the bed that you’ll be planting into, then you will need to do a soil analysis before you plant your berry bushes. Blueberries need acidic soil with an ideal pH between 4.5 and 5.2. If your soil pH is too high, your plants will be iron deficient, causing the foliage to turn yellow between the veins. This deficiency can eventually kill your plants. There are a few ways to acidify a sweet soil. You can spread 2 to 3 ounces of fine ground sulfur (per bush) over the soil and scratch it in. This method will work, although it will typically take at least a year for this amendment to have any effect on your soil’s pH. To decrease the pH fast, use moist peat moss to backfill your planting hole. This quickly raises the acidity, allowing you to have a healthy and productive first season.
Planting times for blueberries vary depending on where you live. If you live in a milder section of the country (Zones 7–9), you can plant in spring or fall. Planting too late in the season in colder zones (Zones 3–6) isn’t ideal because the plants will struggle to get established before the ground freezes, so spring is your best option. The type of blueberry you plant will also be dictated by where you live. Highbush blueberries are the most popular kind for home gardens because they are good-looking, low-care, and produce the largest amount of berries. Each highbush blueberry plant should be spaced 5 to 6 feet apart in a full sun to partial shade. If, however, you’d like to create a hedge out of your bushes, only space them 3 feet apart.
Tip: Skip bareroot plants
Sometimes people will ask me about bareroot plants that you’ll occasionally see at the nursery or get through mailorder. I have never had much success with these and it generally takes a few years for the plants to size-up and start fruiting. As one farmer friend put it to me, “Life is too short to waste time on finicky blueberry bushes.”
Pick the right type
Most blueberries are hardy to –20° F, but each variety has a winter-chilling requirement—or the amount of time that the plant must be dormant. This is measured in the number of days that the plants endure temperatures under 45°F. When selecting your bushes, be sure you investigate their chilling requirement and match that with your locale. Also, remember to buy two or more plants of the same type—but a different cultivar—because cross-pollination increases the crop size.
Zones 3 to 7
The most common blueberry bush grown by the home gardener because it produces the largest volume of fruit, highbushes mature into a manageable 5 to 6 foot tall and wide shrub. There are northern and southern highbush blueberries, each requiring a different amount of cold to produce berries (referred to as “low-chill” and ”high-chill”). Highbush varieties are generally categorized by when their fruit ripens; early, mid, or late-season.
Zones 2 to 8
Also known as “wild” blueberries, these compact plants (2 feet tall and wide) bear smaller-size fruit. You can still expect decent harvests from these plants and the tiny berries pack a more flavorful punch than other blueberries making them ideal for cooking and baking. These plants get tiny white flowers in spring and maroon foliage in fall (pictured) in northern zones.
Zones 3 to 7
These are hybrid bushes whose size is between a high and lowbush blueberry, averaging around 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. They are hardy to all but the northernmost and southernmost sections of the country. The plants produce medium-size berries.
Zones 4 to 8
This highbush blueberry grows approximately 5 feet tall and wide. As the name suggests, the fruit is bright pink when ripe, but has the same flavor as a regular, blue berry. The flowers on these bushes are a light pink, too, as opposed to the white of traditional types. In fall, the foliage turns red.
Dig, flood, mulch, and feed for the best results
The planting process starts with a hole twice as wide and just as deep as the containerized plant. I then place the plant into the hole and partially back-fill (using moistened peat moss if needed for pH). Next, I water in thoroughly–essentially flooding the hole. Allow the water to seep in completely before you finish back-filling. This forces out any air pockets around the plant, which could lead to poor root development. Finish things off by applying a 3 to 4 inch layer of organic mulch around the base of the plant and extending out at least 2 to 3 feet in all directions. Blueberries are shallow-rooted and despise drying out, so mulch helps keep the moisture consistent around the plants. Weeds compete for moisture, too, so mulch also helps to keep them at bay.
I typically don’t fertilize my plants until two or three weeks after planting—or whenever I remember. Just like other acid loving plants such as rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9), blueberries like to be fed with fertilizers specially formulated for their tastes, although this isn’t essential. I like to apply a ring of fertilizer a foot away from the crown of the plants. Scratch the fertilizer into the soil and then give the plants a healthy dose of water. In the first year of planting, I make sure that the plants stay moist by using a soaker hose. If the rain stops for a week or more, I turn the hose on and give the plants a drink.
If all goes right, I start harvesting a small amount of berries within the first year of planting. It may not be enough to fill the freezer at first, but by the second or third year I’m practically begging my family members to take plastic bags of berries home.
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