The modern blueberry is a 20th-century invention. Before the 1900s, the only way to enjoy these North American natives was to find them in the wild. Then, scientists started to unlock the secrets of cultivating blueberries, and we’re glad they did!
Plump, juicy berries are now easy to grow in your backyard on bushes that are resistant to most pests and diseases, and can produce for up to 20 years. A relative of rhododendron and azalea, blueberry bushes aren’t just a great edible plant but also an attractive addition to your overall landscape, offering scarlet fall foliage and creamy white spring flowers. Learn more about why you should grow blueberries in your home garden.
Note: Blueberries are a favorite snack of hungry birds, so it’s recommended that you protect blueberry bushes ahead of time with netting or other methods.
There are three types of blueberries: highbush, lowbush, and hybrid half-high. The most commonly planted blueberry is the highbush. Most blueberry breeding has focused on this species, so there are many varieties that range widely in cold hardiness and fruit season, size, and flavor. See more about blueberry varieties below.
- Blueberries thrive in soil that is acidic. The soil pH should ideally be between 4 and 5. The more organic matter added, the more tolerance to acidity blueberries will have.
- The blueberry is a shallow-rooted plant. Therefore, it requires a soil that hold moisture, but also drains well and doesn’t stay wet.
- Mix organic matter bushes into the soil before you set your blueberry bushes. (See more about soil amendments and preparing soil for planting.)
- Bushes should be planted as early in the spring as possible. If available, one to three-year-old plants are a good choice. Be sure to go to a reputable nursery.
- Dig holes about 20 inches deep and 18 inches wide (about twice as wide and twice as deep as the roots of the plant).
- Space bushes about 5 feet apart in a row, with at least 8 feet between rows. Prepare a planting mixture of 2 parts loam and one part oak leaf mold, peat moss, aged sawdust, or compost, and place a layer of this mixture in the bottom of the hole.
- Set the bush, with its roots spread out, at a depth of one inch more than it grew in the nursery and pack the hole tightly with soil.
- Apply fertilizer one month after planting, not at time of planting. Then apply 1/2 ounce of a 10-10-10 fertilizer in a band around the plant 6 to 12 inches from the crown.
- Mulch to keep shallow blueberry root systems moist, which is essential. Apply a 2-4 inch layer of woodchips, saw dust, or pine needles after planting.
- Supply one to two inches of water per week.
- It is imperative to drape netting over ripening blueberries, so that the birds won’t make away with the entire crop.
- One year after planting, apply one ounce of 10-10-10 fertilizer per bush at bloom, and increase the rate by one ounce each year thereafter to a maximum of 8 ounces for mature bushes.
- Do not allow the bush to produce fruit for the first year or two after planting. Pinch back any blossoms developing on newly set plants to allow growth.
- For the first four years after planting, there is no need to prune blueberry bushes. From then on, pruning is needed to stimulate growth of the new shoots that will bear fruit the following season.
- Prune plants in late winter or early spring before new growth begins.
- Cut out dead, broken, short, weak, and spindly shoots.
- On highbush varieties, begin with large cuts, removing wood that is more than six years old, drooping to the ground, or crowding the center of the bush. Also remove low-growing branches whose fruit will touch the ground, as well as spindly twigs.
- Prune lowbush blueberries by cutting all stems to ground level. Pruned plants will not bear the season following pruning, so prune a different half of a planting every two years (or a different third of a planting every three years).
- Blueberries will be ready for picking in late July to mid August.
- Don’t rush to pick the berries as soon as they turn blue. Wait a couple days. When they are ready, they should fall off right into your hand.
- If you plant two-year-old blueberry plants, they should start to bear within a year or two. (Pick off any flowers that form the first year or two after planting, to allow the bush to become established.) Be aware that full production is reached after about 6 years.
- Blueberries are one of the easiest fruits to freeze. Learn how to properly freeze blueberries so you can have them all winter long.
Blueberries are partially self-fertile, so you will harvest more and larger berries by planting two or more varieties. Planting more than one variety can also extend the harvest season.
Highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum): A six-foot shrub adapted from Zone 4 to Zone 7. For withstanding cold winters, choose ‘Bluecrop’, ‘Blueray’, ‘Herbert’, ‘Jersey’, or ‘Meader’. For big berries, choose ‘Berkeley’, ‘Bluecrop’, ‘Blueray’, ‘Coville’, ‘Darrow’, or ‘Herbert’. For flavor, usually the main reason for growing your own fruit, choose ‘Blueray’, ‘Darrow’, ‘Herbert’, ‘Ivanhoe’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Stanley’, or ‘Wareham’. For something different, try ‘Pink Lemonade’, which produces bright pink blueberries!
Lowbush (V. angustifolium): For the coldest climates, lowbush varieties are your best bet, adapted from Zone 3 to Zone 7. These are the blueberries you find in cans on supermarket shelves. When fresh, the fruits are sweet and covered with a waxy bloom so thick that the berries appear sky blue or gray. The creeping plants, a foot or so high, are spread by underground stems, or rhizomes. They blanket the rocky upland soils of the Northeast and adjacent portions of Canada. Lowbush blueberries make a nice ornamental fruiting ground cover. Plants sold by nurseries are usually seedlings or unnamed wild plants, rather than named varieties.
Half-High: Breeders have combined qualities of highbush and lowbush blueberries into hybrids known as half-high blueberries. University of Minnesota introductions include ‘Northcountry’, a variety that grows 18 to 24 inches high and has excellent, mild-flavored, slightly aromatic sky-blue fruits; and ‘Northblue’, which grows 20 to 30 inches high and produces an abundance of dark-blue, nickel-size, somewhat tart fruits-just right for pies. ‘Northland’ is a half-high-3 to 4 feet-from Michigan, with bland, average-quality fruit.
Rabbiteye (Vaccinium ashei): Grown in the Southeast United States, Rabbiteye varieties are extremely adaptable, productive, and pest-tolerant. They do, however, have a high degree of self-incompatibility and require two or more varieties be planted together to ensure pollination.