Make a pledge here and now to put the sweet treat of these anti-oxidant powerhouses right in your own backyard. It’s relatively easy to grow blueberries, so why not?
Types of Blueberries
There are three main types of blueberries – highbush, lowbush and rabbiteye. Each has its own growing preferences, so be sure to choose the right type for your conditions. The one thing that unites them is they all need acidic soil.
- Highbush: This type of blueberry is recommended for colder climates and grows up to 6 feet tall. It will self-pollinate, but you’ll get bigger and more berries with the cross-pollination that comes from planting more than one.
- Lowbush: These are the most cold hardy of all blueberry plants. They’re low, spreading plants that grow to a maximum height of only about a foot and a half.
- Rabbiteye: This type of blueberry is thought to have gotten its name because of how the berries turn pink – the color of a white rabbit’s eyes – before they turn blue. They’re the best choice if you live in an area with hot summers and mild winters, though they do still need a short winter chilling period. You’ll need to plant at least two varieties for pollination.
Choose a sheltered site for your blueberries, out of strong wind. They like lots of sunshine in the summer, but will tolerate partial shade for a few hours a day.
As emphasized above, blueberries require acidic soil – with a pH of 4 to 5.5. If you live in an area where rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and heathers abound, then your blueberries will likely do well. If not, then you’ll want to plant your blueberries in raised beds or containers where you can more easily get the acidity of the soil to just what they like.
Planting in the ground or raised beds
Prepare the soil several months in advance by digging in composted sawdust, pine bark or acidic potting mix.
- Measure out the planting distances. Blueberries can be planted as close as 2 – 2½ feet apart to form solid hedgerows or spaced up to 6 feet apart and grown individually. If planted in rows, allow 8 to 10 feet between the rows depending on equipment used for mowing or cultivating. Allow 4 to 5 feet for highbush and rabbiteye varieties, and 3 to 5 feet for lowbush.
- Dig a hole deep and wide enough for the plant’s root ball plus an extra 4 inches all around.
- Give the plants a good soaking with water and remove from their containers. Place in the prepared holes and ensure the top of the root ball is level with or slightly below the soil surface.
- Backfill the hole with soil, firming it down around the plant.
- Water generously. Rainwater is best, and don’t use hard city or well water unless it’s your only option.
- Add a layer of mulch around the plants. Composted sawdust, pine bark or pine needles work well.
- Water frequently. If you’re using a source other than rainwater, you may need to apply additional acidic mulch or use special acidic fertilizer to keep the pH of the soil low.
- Add netting around the plants before they produce berries to keep from sharing your harvest with the birds.
- You’ll need to do very little pruning in the first two to three years after planting, just to remove damaged, diseased or weak stems. Starting in the third year, prune in late winter, cutting out the oldest, thickest and least productive stems and trimming the tips of the twiggy ends of stems that produced fruit last year. Prune no more than a quarter of the bush at once.
- In the spring, after pruning in the winter, apply a lime and calcium-free general fertilizer. Don’t reach for the tomato or other general vegetable fertilizers – they’re not a good choice for blueberries.
Planting in containers
Be sure to choose the right variety of blueberry for a container.
- Highbush blueberries can grow 6 feet tall in open ground, and rabbiteyes can grow as tall as 15 feet – so a half-high variety is best for this type of planting.
- Start young plants in a 12- to 14-inch diameter pot. (Be prepared to repot to a larger container every couple of years.)
- Bushel and Berry™ dwarf berry varieties are especially well-suited for planting in containers
- Fill pots placed in a sunny, protected location with a special acidic potting mix, such as one formulated for rhododendrons, camellias and other acid-loving plants, blended with coarse grit to improve drainage.
- Water the plant in its original container to make it easier to remove.
- Place the root ball in a hole in the center of the container, with the top of the root ball at or slightly below surface level. Fill in the potting mix/grit around the root ball and firm it around the plant with your hands.
- Add acidic, organic mulch to the surface of the pot. Composted sawdust, pine bark or pine needles work well.
- Water thoroughly and frequently.
- Feed with a lime-free general fertilizer in the spring.