Blueberries gleam in your home garden like little round sapphire gems. And, oh, that sweet taste when they go right from the bush to your cereal bowl. If you're just getting into a home berry patch, when you plant is just as important as what you plant when it comes to high fruit production.
Tangled up in Blue (Berries)
Some crops are as high maintenance as your in-laws, requiring constant attention to their changing requirements. Others are an easy maintenance crop you can plant, occasionally water or prune and then largely forget about until harvest. Blueberries fall squarely in the easy maintenance category, and you shouldn't hesitate to start growing some.
No matter where you live, one type of blueberry or another is likely to work perfectly. If you live in a cold region, grow lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium). These are the type of blueberries native to Alaska, growing on short bushes close to the ground. The berries are small but super sweet. Grow these in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 through 6.
If your region is slightly warmer, highbush berries (Vaccinium corymbosum) might work better for you. They thrive in zones 4 through 7 and are the berries produced commercially in this country. They're higher than lowbush berries, growing to 12 feet tall.
Higher and more vigorous yet are rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium virgatum) that climb to 20 feet. They're also the most heat tolerant of the species, thriving in zones 7 through 10. These may be the easiest blueberries to grow, and they produce medium to large berries of excellent quality.
When to Plant
Where you live determines what type of berries you can plant. It also influences when you should plant your berries. In warm regions, like USDA zones 8 through 10, mid to late fall is an ideal time to plant. January and February are also good.
If you live in an area where winters are cold, you should put those berries in the ground in spring. Wait until the ground has thawed enough to shovel.
How to Maximize the Yield
Grow blueberries in full sun in well-draining soil to which you have added rich organic material. The pH should be about 5.0 since blueberries thrive in acidic soil. Generous irrigation is essential to blueberries, although they do better with less frequent deep watering than with frequent shallow irrigation. Give the plants about 2 inches per week.
Immediately after planting, spread mulch to keep down weeds and regulate the temperature of the soil. Use straw, shredded leaves, pine needles or well-aged sawdust from wood not treated with preservative. You'll want to fertilize the plants in early spring, just at the time of leaf break. Use a good, well-balanced fertilizer like 10-5-5. Apply again after pruning.
Cutting Back to Get More
Cutting back berry bushes is important in getting a good berry yield. After planting, prune out about one-fourth of the branches. New branches will quickly appear, more vigorous than those removed. Don't prune again until the third year after harvest. The idea is to open up the inside of the plant, taking out the oldest branches. For lowbush berries, cut them back to ground level. Do one-half each year since the ones you cut won't produce berries that year.
Pruning is also the way to revive an older, neglected blueberry bush. The best way to renovate an old bush is to mow down the plant in early spring, even before new growth begins. Your bush will grow many new shoots. Follow this up by several years of increased pruning to deal with the abundant new growth. Take out two-thirds of the new shoots the first year and then about half the new shoots the second.
You can buy berry plants with different harvest times. Spacing out your harvest has the advantage of providing fresh berries all summer. But if you don't, your blueberries will generally ripen in late July and early August. Don't fill your bucket the moment the berries turn blue. A few days later, the berries will be fully ripe and seem to jump off the bush into your hand.