Growing blueberries at home is easy, fun, and a great way to have a nutrient packed snack ready in your pantry. As an added bonus, growing your own fruit is an excellent way to be prepared for emergencies.
To grow blueberries, choose a few varieties of that will grow well in your area. Decide if you want to grow your blueberries from seed or purchase mature plants. If you choose to grow them from seed, be sure to start getting your seeds ready in the fall as they’ll need a winter chilling period to break their dormancy.
Be sure to prepare the soil for blueberries by testing the acidity with a handheld soil acid tester. If it isn’t between a 4.5-5.5 you’ll need to add some acidic soil amendments to help your blueberries thrive. Plant blueberries in a place where they’ll get at least 6 hours of sunlight, but the more the better.
Blueberries can be planted in the late fall if you live in a moderate climate but wait until spring if you live in a very cold area. Plant a few different varieties of blueberry together in a patch so that they’ll get cross pollinated with each other. When digging the hole for blueberry plants dig twice as wide and twice as deep at the roots of your plant, and mulch around the top heavily to retain moisture.
Once blueberries are established, they’ll need 1-2 inches of water a week and they’ll need to be pruned once a year. Don’t over-fertilize blueberries and don’t fertilize your new plants until they’ve been in the ground about a month.
In this article I break down all the above information into more detail and give you all the information you need to successfully grow blueberries. It may seem like there are a lot of steps, but I promise once you have a few key things in place blueberries really are easy to grow.
Benefits of Growing Blueberries
- Blueberries are hardy and are an easy plant for beginners to start with
- Blueberries can produce fruit for up to three decades
- Blueberries are often expensive, especially fresh. Growing your own can save money.
- Blueberries are loaded with nutrients including antioxidants, fiber, vitamin K and vitamin C.
- Blueberry plants are a beautiful to look at! They produce nice flowers in the spring and in the fall the foliage turns a beautiful gold orange.
Here is a very short video I did one day showing my new blueberry bush raised bed and the simple watering system I set up for it.
Species of Blueberry
There are three species of blueberry plant, and each one has numerous tasty varieties. All three types will mature into some form of woody deciduous shrub, meaning the leaves will fall off in the winter.
Lowbush (Vaccinium angustifolium): This variety produces smaller fruit and has a reputation for being higher in antioxidants. You may have seen this variety in boxed baking mixes that include blueberries. Lowbush blueberries are native to southern Canada and the northern US, or more officially, in zones 3-6. As you might guess from their native range, they are very cold tolerant. They form—as the name suggests—low, ground hugging bushes that range from about 6 inches to 2 feet tall.
Highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum): These are the varieties you’re the most familiar with if you live in the US and are native to northeastern North America. There are over 50 varieties of highbush blueberry! Highbush varieties tend to be larger than lowbush ones, but the actual plant is smaller than the rabbiteye varieties. Highbush varieties grow to between 6-12 feet tall and form what we plant nerds describe as an upright, crown-forming shrub. This variety freezes well.
Highbush blueberries are self-fertile, meaning they can pollinate themselves to create fruit. However, it is a common practice to cross pollinate highbush blueberries with other varieties as this usually results in larger berries that ripen faster.
Rabbiteye (Vaccinium virgatum): This variety is native to the southeastern part of the US and grows well in warmer conditions. The name comes from the pink color the fruit turns before they ripen to blue, which looks somewhat like the eye color of a white rabbit. After freezing rabbiteye varieties you may find the skin becomes a bit thick. The rabbiteye varieties can grow to be huge plants if not pruned; up to 20 feet tall!
Rabbiteye varieties tend to resist pests well and tend to produce fruit for more years than the highbush varieties. They also tend to be one of the more forgiving types of blueberries and need fewer hours of chilling time.
Popular Varieties of Blueberry
Once you have an idea for which type of blueberry plant is best suited to your area it’s time to explore the seemingly endless list of varietals. Here is a list of some of the most popular varieties of each type. Keep in mind that each variety will also have a slightly different season for producing fruit.
Highbush: Here we make a further distinction between Northern and Southern Highbush.
- Gulf Coast
- Georgia Gem
- Blue Ridge
- Cape Fear
How To Choose the Best Variety of Blueberry for Your Area
You may have a pretty good idea of which species of blueberry will fit best in your region already just by reading the above descriptions. If you want further guidance your local agricultural extension office or a local nursery will be a great source of information. Agricultural extension offices have experts whose job it is to stay on top of the latest advancements in farming and agriculture and they should have a good working knowledge of what crops grow well in your area.
On a smaller scale, think about where in your yard or balcony you have space for blueberries and consider how much sunlight that area gets.
Besides considering your climate restrictions for your blueberries, how they taste is extremely important! If you’re able to visit a farm where blueberries are grown, ask if you can try a few of each type. Especially if you’re growing these guys from seed, you’ll want to make sure you enjoy the fruit they produce.
It’s a good idea to choose a few different varieties of plant together so they can help cross-pollinate either. Since each variety has a different “season” for fruiting you’ll want to make sure you choose varieties that overlap in their season. For example, choose early, mid and late season blueberries, or early and mid, or mid and late. Don’t choose early and late season fruiters only. They may not have flowers out at the same time.
Growing Blueberries from Seed Vs. Planting Mature Plants
Yes, you can try growing your blueberries from seed. Some people find that kind of thing rewarding. You know what I find rewarding? Eating blueberries.
And if you want to eat blueberries as soon as possible from your own garden, plant mature plants you can buy at a nursery. Blueberries take about a month to germinate, but they often take up to three years to start producing fruit. You can buy blueberries that are three years old at the nursery, pop them in the ground and be on your way.
Tips for Growing Blueberries from Seed
That said, if you really want to grow your blueberries from seed, or if you have no choice because you don’t have a good nursery nearby, just be sure to pinch off the blossoms for the first two years. I know it’s painful to pinch off blossoms that will become fruit, but by doing this you will cause the plant to divert its energy into producing strong roots. In the end, you’ll get better harvests from a bigger plant if you can just wait a bit first.
You can try separating the seeds out of blueberries you get from the store, but they may not grow very well. You’d be better off purchasing the seeds.
However, if you want to try and extract the seeds from fresh blueberries watch this video or follow these steps. The video shows a different process than the steps I outline so if you have trouble with one you may try the other.
- Put the blueberries in a blender with some water and pulse.
- Pulse the blueberry mixture for around 20 seconds, then let the mixture stand for 5 minutes.
- The flesh of the blueberries will rise to the top with the water and the seeds should sink.
- Gently pour off the top part of the mixture or add more water and repeat the process if you’re not seeing a good separation.
- Mimic the chilling period needed by the seed to break their dormancy by placing them in a paper towel in the freezer for about 90 days.
If you don’t have a blender you can also mash the berries by hand and shake them in a mason jar with some water.
To grow the seeds follow these steps:
- You will start the seedlings in sphagnum peat moss. The seeds are small so to give them enough substrate to latch onto, grind up sphagnum moss up if it isn’t already a fine texture.
- Sprinkle seeds onto a seed tray filled with peat moss topped with a little bit of soil or additional moss. Don’t exceed ¼’’ for the top layer of soil or moss.
- Place a layer of newspaper on top of the seed tray (optional).
- Keep the soil/moss mixture damp.
- Keep the seeds in a warm and sunny spot or keep a grow light on them about 2 feet above the tray.
- Depending on the type of blueberry it can take between six weeks and three months to germinate.
- Once the seedlings are 2-3 inches tall you can re-pot them into individual pots using an equal mixture of peat, sand and soil. Keep them well watered and in a sunny spot.
- After the last frost the blueberry seedlings can be planted outdoors.
Blueberries are slow growers. You may not see more than a few inches of growth in the first year.
How To Create The Best Soil Conditions for Blueberries
Blueberries in the wild grow in bogs, which are damp and acidic in nature with lots and lots of decaying organic matter. The best soil conditions to grow blueberries will be in acidic soil with a pH between 4.5 and 5.5. Changing the chemistry of your soil can be challenging, but don’t worry, I did the research for you!
This video touches on getting your soil chemistry right, but also has a ton of other great information for all aspects of blueberry care.
What is the pH Scale?
Really quickly, for those of us who haven’t been in chemistry class in a while, the pH scale is a way to describe how acidic a substance is. If you really want to get nerdy, it directly measures how much hydrogen a substance has.
The scale runs from 0-14, with 7 being considered neutral. Anything less than a 7 is considered acidic while anything over 7 is considered alkaline or basic.
What Determines the pH of Soil?
The two major factors that influence the pH of soil are the type of rock that weathered down to create your soil (called the parent material), and the amount of rainfall your area receives. Some rocks are naturally less acidic than others. Limestone is a very alkaline (i.e., the opposite of acidic) type of rock whereas volcanic rocks can make acidic soils.
Rainfall preferentially leaches out the basic elements out of soil, like calcium and magnesium. So areas with high rainfall often have fairly acidic soils.
How To Test the pH of Soil
You can absolutely buy soil test strips or pH testing handheld devices and to achieve any level of preciseness, this is what I would recommend.
If you just want a general idea of whether your soil is acid or alkaline follow these steps:
- Take 3 tablespoons of soil in a cup and add ¾ cup white vinegar. If the mixture creates any bubbles, you likely have an alkaline (or basic) soil.
- Take 3 tablespoons of soil and this time add distilled water. It’s important to use distilled water to ensure it has the most neutral chemistry. Add ¾ cup of baking soda. This time, if the soil gets fizzy, you have an acidic soil.
As I said, if you want any type of precision with your measurements, go ahead and buy a dedicated pH reader. You can get them for about $10 on Amazon.
How to Change the Acidity of Soil
In order to lower the acidity of soil you can add in amendments. The first two can be found in nurseries, and the third one is an organic way to lower pH.
- Aluminum sulfate: This is the quick fix for lowering the acidity of soil. As soon as it is mixed and watered in it will lower the pH.
- Sulfur: This option takes more time because the sulfur must mix with water and bacteria in an ideally warm environment in order to produce sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid is really what lowers the pH. Depending on how much of each of these factors you have, adding sulfur can take a few weeks to a few months to change the acidity of your soil.
- Well-decomposed compost: If you compost at home or your neighbor has a pile you can use, this is a great option for amending soil. It will take the longest of the three options to lower the acidity in a significant way, but adding compost also helps create a healthy soil texture (yes, that’s important), and adds microorganisms to your soil, which are absolutely your friends here.
Be careful not to overdo it on either aluminum sulfate or sulfur. The amount needed for your soil will depend on how big of an area you’re trying to amend, the current pH of your soil, as well as your soil type. Sandy soils need less while clayey soils will need a little more.
Always be sure to work these amendments in before you have plants in the ground. If that ship has sailed, just be sure not to get them on the leaves of your plants, otherwise you may burn them.
Where To Plant Blueberries
Pick a spot in your yard that meets the requirements for the type (or types) of blueberry you are growing. Depending on the type you’ve chosen they will require anything from partial shade to full sun. That said, keep in mind that sunshine helps blueberries ripen! This means the more sun you can give them the more fruit you’ll have. Blueberries naturally grow in damp environments, so add plenty of mulch to keep the soil from drying out.
Avoid planting blueberries too close to trees, as they will compete for moisture and block out the sun needed to ripen the berries.
It is widely recommended that different types of blueberries be planted together so that they will cross pollinate and produce better harvests. For this reason, plant all your blueberry varieties in more or less the same area rather than spread throughout the yard.
When To Plant Blueberries
The answer to this question depends on where you live. If you live in a very cold climate wait until the spring the plant your blueberries. This is because blueberries won’t establish well with consistent snowfall—although a few freezes won’t hurt them. If you live in a moderate climate you can plant in either fall or early spring.
Keep in mind that a brand-new plant won’t survive well with lots of snowfall, but they actually do need a “chilling” period over the winter in order to mimic the plant’s natural cycle of dormancy. The chilling is exactly what it sounds like: the plant needs to be stored between 35-45 degrees Fahrenheit for a certain period of time.
How long should the chilling period be? I’m sorry to sound like a broken record, but this will depend on what variety of blueberry you have. They can require anywhere from 200 to 1,000 hours of chilling time. You should be able to ascertain the chilling period with a quick Google search of your variety of blueberry.
How To Plant Blueberries
Blueberries are a shallow rooted species, so you won’t need to dig a deep hole. A good way to estimate the size of the hole you need is to dig two times as wide and two times as deep as the roots of the plant. The root ball of the plant should be just below the surface. And I mean like, ½’’ to ¼’’ below the surface. Give the plant about a month before you add any fertilizer, and when you do, make sure it’s a brand that is specially formed for acid loving plants.
You can check out this video to see exactly how she plants these mature blueberry plants. Fast forward to 3:15 or watch the entire video for a repeat of some of the information already presented here.
Can You Grow Blueberries in Buckets?
Absolutely! Just remember some of the basics for planting blueberries in the ground; they need acidic soil, and they’ll do well if you can plant a few varieties together. There are dwarf varieties of blueberry that will be especially well suited for growing in a bucket. Like all plants grown in containers, their soil is more exposed to the outside temperature and will need to be brought in during the winter.
Growing blueberries in a bucket would be an especially good move if you’re not interested in amending a big patch of your backyard soil to meet blueberry needs.
Varieties of Blueberries That Grow Well in Buckets
- Pink Champagne
- Top Hat
Caring For Blueberries After They Are Planted
Watering Schedule for Blueberries
Plant to give your blueberries one to two inches of water each week. They need a lot of moisture, but they won’t thrive in saturated soil (which can promote pathogen growth!).
You should help keep the soil moist by mulching blueberries heavily. This will especially protect the shallow roots from drying out and will discourage weeds.
Fertilizing Schedule for Blueberries
Be stingy with your fertilization when it comes to blueberries. They naturally thrive in fairly nutrient poor soil. You won’t need to fertilize them until at least a year after you plant them. When you do, you can go with a fertilizer that is specially formulated for acidic soils or use 1 ounce of 10-10-10 fertilizer per plant in the spring when they are blooming.
The following year apply 2 ounces per plant and continue this pattern of increasing fertilizer every year up to a maximum of 8 ounces per plant.
Pruning Blueberry Plants
Blueberries will need annual pruning in order to produce the biggest harvest you can get each year. The purpose of pruning is to stimulate new stem growth, so you shouldn’t need to do too much heavy pruning until the plant is well established after about year 4.
To prune blueberries, you’ll aim to remove between one third and one half of the woody stalks in the very early spring before the plant has started producing new leaf shoots. Prioritize pruning any stems that are broken, thin or look sickly. You want to take care of pruning before the plant has invested any of its precious energy in producing new leaves you’re just going to lop off.
Aim to prune down to the ground any stems that are 1’’ or larger in diameter as well as any stems that are rubbing other stems or that are dragging on the ground.
Companion Plants for Blueberry
Planting other plants along side your blueberries is a great idea. Other plants can attract pollinators, provide shade and create a more diverse soil ecosystem. Because of how acidic the soil is for blueberries, there are really only a few options. Rhododendrons, basil and thyme are good options. Just be sure to plant them far enough away from the blueberries that they aren’t competing for space and nutrients.
Avoid These Blueberry Pests
- Spotted Wing Drosophila: This fly can be a problem for almost all the common berries and cherries grown in the US, and actually does a tremendous amount of crop damage. The damage is done when drosophila larvae are deposited into the blueberry and eat the pulp, causing the berry to wither. The best way to manage spotted wing drosophila is to monitor for their presence and set out traps. Check out this video on how to make a drosophila trap at home.
- Mummy Berry: A fungus called Monilinia vaccinii-corymbosi which can also devastate blueberry crops. Mummy berry infects plants in stages and begins with withering leaves and shoots and progresses to cause the berries to turn pinkish white and withered like a mummy. The fungus that causes mummy berry has a very complex life cycle and the best way to prevent it from gaining a foothold in your garden to recognize the “mushroom cap”, also called apothecia, when they start popping up in the spring. They are small and brown with open faced cup shaped tops. If you notice the Monilinia fruit around your plants, you can lessen the chances it will produce spores by simply covering it with additional dirt. As little as one inch of dirt has been shown to do the trick. Some farmers mulch around the bushes which also increases nutrients in the soil, and some rake or till up the soil to turn them over.
- You can also plant varieties of blueberry that aren’t as susceptible to mummy berry. Four varieties that are particularly susceptible are Dixi, Earliblue, Elliot and Berkeley.
- Blueberry Maggot: The blueberry maggot was only recently detected for the first time in 2016 in Wisconsin but there is an expectation that this will soon be a major agricultural pest. The fly of the blueberry maggot looks like a normal housefly but has a distinctive black banding pattern on its wings. You should monitor for blueberry maggots by setting out sticky insect traps a few weeks before the fruit ripens. If you start noticing the adult blueberry maggot flies every day on your sticky traps, you will need to treat your crop chemically. Heating up or freezing the blueberries will kill the larvae but particular care needs to be used if the blueberries are composted or with equipment that was used in the soil near your blueberry patch. The pupae can be transferred in the soil and they can survive composting which will only perpetuate your problems.
- Iron Chlorosis: Iron chlorosis, which happens when the soil isn’t acidic enough, will cause the leaves of your plants to turn yellow. Chlorosis comes from the word for chlorophyll, the green pigment in plant leaves, and the “osis” part of the word indicates a lack of it. This problem can be fixed by lowering the pH of the soil.
- Birds: Birds are the enemy to lots of tasty fruiting plants. You can purchase a thin mesh net that is specifically designed to be draped over plants to deter birds.
When To Harvest Blueberries
Blueberries are summer fruit. They typically ripen from July to September. Berries that are ripe will easily come off the branch. If you have to yank on the berry, it probably isn’t ready.