Blueberries are beautiful, ornamental plants that can provide buckets of fruit for 30 years or more when looked after correctly. The berries are packed with nutrients and are delicious when eaten directly from the plant or added to baked goods. They are hardy plants that are easy to grow, so even beginner gardeners can soon have a bountiful harvest of fresh berries.
In most climates, blueberries can be planted in the fall or spring. The occasional frost or snow won't hurt new plants, so if planting in the spring, put them in the ground as early as possible. The plants benefit from spring rains and will have plenty of time to get established before flowering. Although blueberries are hardy, a new plant won't cope with constant snow, so people in a very cold climate shouldn't plant in fall.
It's easiest to grow blueberries from established plants. Nurseries often sell plants that are 2-3 years old and only need a year to get settled in a new home before they begin producing fruit. For best results, choose two varieties of blueberries. This allows for cross-pollination, which can extend the harvest season if you choose varieties that fruit at different times. Blueberries can also be grown from seed, whether bought from a nursery or saved from fruit. They take a month to germinate, and the plants produce fruit after three years.
The most important factor in a healthy, high-yield blueberry plant is the soil. Blueberries like acidic soil, with a pH between 4.5 and 5. Nurseries can give information about how to test and adjust soil pH. If possible, make adjustments a year before planting. Blueberries also like a spot with at least 6 hours of sunlight each day. They need well-drained soil in a weed-free location. Add plenty of organic matter and 2-4 inches of mulch to help conserve moisture.
Blueberries adapt very well to container planting. As long as you have a sunny spot, they can be grown in a relatively small space, including balconies. Use a pot that's at least 18 inches deep and has drainage holes. An acidic potting mix is the best choice, such as one formulated for azaleas. Having 2-3 plants helps encourage a good harvest; if your space for plants is fairly small, choose a dwarf variety as they don't take up too much room. The roots of plants in pots don't have the same protection as those in the ground, so move plants to a protected area in winter.
Blueberries like moist, but not damp, roots. They need an inch of water each week, from 1-3 watering sessions. Blueberries shouldn't be fertilized until after the plant is established, which takes about a year. When ready, fertilize once in early spring and again in late spring. Choose an acidic fertilizer, and don't be too generous as they're prone to over-fertilization. Blueberries have shallow roots, which means they compete with weeds. Mulch them regularly to keep weed growth under control.
Blueberries ripen in summer, with most ready to harvest in July or August and some varieties stretching to September. They're self-pollinating, but having two varieties in the same area leads to bigger crops and larger berries. Ripe berries will fall away from the branch easily when touched gently, while berries that aren't quite ripe stay attached.
A blueberry bush older than 3 years will need regular pruning to stay healthy. Prune them by removing 1/3 to 1/2 of all wood each year, but do so when the bushes are dormant, before any leaf buds have formed. Look for any branches 1 inch or more in diameter and cut them right to the ground. This gives room for new, productive branches to grow. Prune any branches that rub against each other, arch towards the ground, or look like they will block the sun from reaching the center of the plant once in bloom.
There are three main types of blueberry, and each type has numerous varieties. The lowbush type is hardy, withstands snow cover, and grows 12-18 inches high. Highbush types can grow 7 feet tall and do better in warmer weather. Rabbiteye types are the largest, reaching 12 feet tall. They're native to the southeast and grow the best in hot regions. They're also more tolerant of less-than-ideal soil conditions. A local nursery can give guidance on the best variety for your region.
Although blueberries are pest-resistant, some issues can impact their health. Spotted wing drosophila is a type of fruit fly that eats unripe fruit. If it's a problem in your area, choose a variety of blueberry that ripens early, as the drosophila doesn't appear until August. Blueberry maggot is another pest, but traps are available for them that are easy, effective, and organic. Lastly, look out for mummy berry, a type of fungus that causes the berries to mummify. If this is a problem, pull the fruit off and throw it away. Mulch well at the end of the season to stop spores spreading.
The blueberry plant's shallow roots and acidic soil limit options for companion plants. Choose plants that also love acidic soil and place them outside of the blueberry's root zone. Tall plants can offer shade during the summer months, and flowering plants that attract insects can help pollinate blueberry flower buds. Rhododendrons and California lilac are two good flowering options that also add color to a garden. Herbs that can be planted with blueberries include basil and thyme.