Days to germination: Start with seedlings, not seeds
Days to harvest: 3 years
Light requirements: Full sun, or partial shading
Water requirements: Regular watering
Soil: Fertile with organic matter, and high acidity
Container: Dwarf varieties will work best
Blueberries aren’t the plant for a quick fruit harvest. You will have to let it grow and get established for 3 years before you should start to harvest any berries. But after that, it will produce for at least another 10 years.
They’re usually eaten fresh and sometimes juiced for their deep purple juice. Blueberries are an excellent source for antioxidants, fiber as well as vitamins A and C. Be careful when you eat them. Their juice is notorious for staining, your mouth and your clothing.
Depending on the specific variety, blueberries can be hardy to zone 3, or tolerate the heat of zone 10. For cooler regions, try varieties like Bluecrop, Collins or Earliblue. Southern types like Woodward, Southland and Sunshine Blue all prefer warmer weather.
Home gardeners never bother to start blueberry bushes from seed. Purchase seedlings that are 2 to 3 years old instead.
Your bushes will grow fairly large, so space them out at least 4 feet apart. Average bushes will be 4 to 6 feet high, with dwarf varieties coming in at closer to 2 feet. When you plan the location for your plants, make sure they won’t throw shade somewhere unwanted in a few years.
When you dig the soil, add some peat moss for drainage and you should plant the seedlings about an inch deeper than they were in their pots. Plant your blueberries out early in the spring once the ground is thawed enough to easily dig.
Blueberries are unusual in that they really do best in acidic soil, much more so than other fruits or garden vegetables. A natural way of increasing the acidity is to add pine needles to the soil. Mulching with pine needles is a very good way of doing this.
If you don’t have easy access to pine needles, there are acidic fertilizer formulas you can use instead. One designed for blueberries or even azaleas will work great at keeping your soil pH balanced on the acid side. Garden centers sell paper strips you can use to test the pH of your soil, which can help you figure out what you need.
A single bush will produce a fine harvest of berries, but 2 or more will provide better pollination and larger berries. So if you have the space, plant a few bushes.
Technically you can start picking blueberries as soon as the plant can make them, but the more common practice is to pinch out the flowers on the entire bush for the first 2 years. This give your bushes a chance to develop a solid root structure without the added strain of producing berries. You can start picking berries in year 3. These years are based on when you plant your seedling, not the actual age of the bush.
Around the fourth year after planting, you will want to start to do a bit of pruning. To get as much light as possible through the bush, you want to take out any branches that have died or are too skinny to produce fruit. Really old branches with gray bark can usually be trimmed out as well.
Blueberries have shallow roots, so you shouldn’t cultivate around your bushes. Pull weeds by hand, or just use mulch to keep invading plants out. It also means that blueberries can dry out easily, so give them a deep watering once a week for their first season. After that, just make sure to water during any dry spells.
Traditional blueberry bushes are too large for container gardening, but the small dwarf varieties are well suited for it. Sunshine Blue will get up to 4 feet tall, and would take a very large pot. For something even smaller, look for Top Hat blueberries. The little bushes are under 2 feet high. Perfect for a 12 inch pot.
As mentioned, blueberries like acid soil. Trying to mix pine needles in a pot can be a bit awkward so you should rely on Azalea fertilizer to improve the soil.
Pests and Diseases
Blueberry bushes are extremely hardy, and rarely succumb to any serious insect or disease attacks. That doesn’t mean they are totally problem-free though.
The blueberry maggot is one particular insect that can plague your berry patch. Adult flies lay eggs in the growing berries, and the maggots eat the berries after they hatch. If you find infested berries, make sure to dispose of them rather than just dropping them back to the ground. The maggots will overwinter in the soil, and emerge as new flies to start the cycle in the spring. Treat the bushes in the spring with insecticide to keep the adults away.
Another insect pest is the cranberry fruitworm. The small gray moths lay their eggs on the fruit, and the caterpillar larvae start to devour your berries. You can tell you have fruitworms by the clusters of sawdust-like debris and webbing they leave behind when they move between berries. Pick off the infected clusters as you discover them. Like with the blueberry maggot, you have to treat the plants earlier in the season with sprays to kill the adults first.
Fresh berries are tempting to many larger pests, especially birds. A net covering for your bushes when the berries are getting ripe should help save the harvest for you.
If you’ve had very damp weather, your berries can get infected with an Anthracnose fungus. Bright pink spores will start to grown on the berries. Pick off the infected fruit, and treat the plant with a standard fungicide spray.
Harvest and Storage
As mentioned, you don’t start picking berries until your 3rd year. You’ll start to get a full harvest by the 5th or 6th year, and at that point you can expect 6 to 8 quarts of berries each season.
Your berries will be their sweetest about 7 days after they turn blue. The best way to test their flavor is to taste a few as harvest time gets near. They should come loose with a gentle pull. Any berries that don’t come off easily are not ripe enough to harvest. Expect your main harvest to be in the summer, though the specific timing will depend on your regional climate.
The fresh berries will stay firm for up to a week in the refrigerator. Blueberries can be stored longer if you freeze them, make them into jam, or even dry them.