Blueberries (Vaccinium species and cultivars) are such an exciting group of shrubs for me that I believe an exclamation point should always be after the word. This edible shrub gives us beauty in the landscape, and produces attractive blue, tasty fruit. It is one of the easier food crops to cultivate and maintain in our Pacific Northwest climate, and is a fruit that is safe to harvest—you don’t have to climb a ladder to reach it. Moreover, there is a variety of shrubs to fill your landscape needs. You can grow tall ones or short ones. Select a deciduous one with bright fall colors, or an evergreen one that looks great all year round. Don’t have room in the ground? Grow a low bush cultivar in a beautiful container anywhere that receives full sun.
Imagine your child wanting to eat a highly nutritious food, chockfull of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Blueberries! Most children readily eat them. The bush is an easy garden plant to use when teaching children how to grow their own food. I highly recommend having a few varieties in any children’s garden so children can have a healthy snack whenever they want a sweet treat. Early, mid and late fruiting varieties will have your kids eating healthy snacks over a lengthy summer harvest.
Vaccinium 'Sunshine Blue' with pink flowers.
The branch hangs down from the weight of
a cluster of unripe V. 'Darrow' fruits.
A small cluster of V. 'Sunshine Blue' fruit.
The fall foliage of V. 'Elliot'.
Although this is an easy plant to care for, it does have some basic needs in order to have a healthy plant that produces much fruit.
Location, Location, Location
- Sun – First, blueberry shrubs need sun, lots, and lots of sun. Give it a sunny position where it can bask.
- Acidic soil – Our PNW soil typically has a low pH level. Unless your soil is alkaline, there is no need to sour the soil more with acidic fertilizers. Do not lime your soil around these plants. To keep the magnesium levels up, spread your used coffee grounds around the base. Avoid planting near sidewalks or foundations made of concrete that leaches into the soil and creates conditions that are more alkaline. If your soil is too sweet, you can add peat moss to acidify the planting bed.
- The no tree zone – Don’t plant too close to trees. Blueberries have shallow roots and can’t compete well for nutrients from the soil.
- Keep out of heavy clay soil – If your soil is waterlogged clay, build raised beds for your blueberry subjects.
- Drainage – Give them moist, but well-drained soil.
Now that you have your bushes planted, here’s what you need to do to keep them beautiful and producing copious amounts of fruit for harvest.
- Water – Blueberries need moisture. During our summer drought period, they will need weekly watering or more, so that the soil remains moist. Mulching around their base with bark mulch and adding compost regularly to the soil helps retain the moisture. Container plants will need daily watering during the summer. I tried being stingy with the water on these shrubs, and each year that I cut back on water they gave less fruit and declined in vigor. I now water them often.
- Keep the area around their roots weed free. Mulching helps keep weeds down.
- Fertilize with blood or cottonseed meal and use spent coffee grounds for a nitrogen fertilizer that won’t raise the pH level. Do not use cow or chicken manure because they do raise the level. You can use an acidic base fertilizer for rhododendrons, but since this is a food crop, I recommend using organic fertilizers, such as those mentioned above. For a complete organic, fertilizer formulated by Steve Solomon for our Pacific Northwest soil, Check out this fertilizer recipe you mix yourself and save money. For your blueberries, be sure to use the ingredients that keep our soul acidic and leave out the lime.
- Did I mention mulching? Oh yes, I did say to mulch in order to keep the soil from drying out. However, it’s important to remember that you also reap the benefit of less weeding chores by mulching with a good medium to fine bark mulch. Mulch looks great around the bushes and has an additional benefit. When the bark breaks down more humus is added to the soil. Add two to four inches of mulch every other year for maximum benefit.
If you buy a blueberry bush in a one-gallon pot, you must take off all the flowers the first year, so that it can direct all its energy into new growth. However, if you buy a plant that is in larger pots, you can let them flower and set fruit their first year.
Prune every winter while they are dormant. Typically, a branch will fruit for 3 years and then fruit production declines. Older branches look blotchy and/or woody. Get rid of them and allow the newer growth to take over. You will have larger berries and more of them for your trouble. So make it a habit every year to prune out the older canes. Also, take out any twiggy growth that stays low to the ground. Basically, you want to remove about a third of the shrub every year.
Very few pests bother this shrub. I found a beautiful white furry caterpillar on one of my shrubs many years ago, but I didn’t find it to be damaging the shrub enough to remove it. That’s the only time I found anything munching on the leaves.
The first year that I let my plants go to fruit, I was looking out the window amused at the antics of a cedar waxwing bird. He kept jumping up and down behind one of the blueberry shrubs. As I stood their giggling over its antics, I realized that the little bugger was picking my fruit! I went out and shooed him away, then drove into town and bought some bird netting. I left one shrub uncovered for the birds and netted the rest. Birds aren’t good at sharing. They will pick a bush clean in little time. I netted the shrubs for a few years, and after that they left them alone, preferring to eat blackberries. The moral of my story is, protect your harvest from the masked cedar waxwings and their relatives. Squirrels can also be a blueberry pest, although I haven’t seen them thieving my fruit. Netting will also help keep them from your harvest.
A Few More Thoughts
Use blueberries in your garden as an ornamental, edible plant. A normal size plant will produce about 5 pounds per bush in the home garden. You will want at least two average size blueberry plants per person in your family for fresh eating, and four plants per person for fresh eating, baking and freezing. Although some, but not all, blueberries are self-fertile, you need to plant more than one variety to increase your fruit yields.
Get out there and plant yourself some blueberries so that you can enjoy their highly nutritional, bluishness.