Despite the early heat and the lack of rain, we have had a phenomenal blueberry harvest this year… The best harvest yet! So I wanted to share some of our winning growing techniques.
Have the right climate? We live in the southern Willamette Valley in western Oregon. The summers are typically mild (average daily high July-September might be 80 degrees Fahrenheit, with a few days into the 90s). Winters are typically also mild, and very wet (Little to no snowfall and temperatures never remaining at freezing or below for very long). While blueberries seem to tolerate cold pretty well with mulching and will stand up to hot weather with irrigation, our weather here in the south valley seems to make them quite happy! Before you plant, know your area’s climate. Research blueberry varieties known to be better at tolerating things like long stretches of hot, arid weather or deep, brutal cold and be prepared with actions you can take to combat against potential damage caused by these.
How about location? Happy plants make for happy harvests. For the happiest plants, select a good location. Every property has micro climates where some plants will thrive and others will suffer. Choose an area that gets at least a half day of sun and is within reach of irrigation. South, east and west sides of shady things buildings or trees can be good choices.
Happy from the root up! Happy roots make for happy plants! Root unhappiness makes for most of the brown-thumb fails that we all experience from time to time. Here are some things to do to make blueberry roots very happy:
Plant them in the ground. Some varieties are said to be container friendly, but I’ve found that potted or raised-bed blueberries are less happy (and produce far fewer berries) than their siblings that have been planted directly in the ground. My best guess is that being planted in the ground helps normalize the temperature and moisture of their roots and gives them more room to grow into a comfortable network.
Mulch for the win! Blueberry bushes tend to have relatively shallow roots and tend to perform better when other shallow-rooted plants (like weeds) don’t compete for the same space.
Applying a layer of mulch annually can help keep weeds at bay and can also keep the roots hydrated and protected from extreme temperatures. Bark, pine straw or last autumn’s leaf litter have all seemed to work well around my blueberries.
A little distance goes a long way. Plant blueberry bushes 4 feet apart, even if they are just tiny when you plant them. Within a few years they will fan out and fill in the space. When you plant them too close together the plants’ root systems compete for the same space and cause stress for the plants. Also, it’s easier for you to pluck the berries if they are planted a comfortable distance apart. 😉
And don’t forget to water daily!
Once you have the right plants in the right spots, here are some ways you can increase your yield at harvest time…
Grow at least 2 different varieties. Blueberries pollinate better if you plant two different varieties in close proximity. That being said, plant at least two plants and make sure they are not the same variety. You’ll notice that some varieties ripen at different times during the growing season. If you choose the right combinations of varieties you could have blueberries all summer long!
Share a pot of coffee with your blueberries every day. Really? Well… Yeah! Blueberries like coffee grounds, probably mainly because of the acidity, but also because they make really good worm food as they decompose. You can dump your coffee grounds on the soil or mulch at the base of the plants. You can even leave the filters as mulch if you don’t mind the appearance of them. If you’re not a coffee drinker or if you have more plants than your daily pot of coffee can provide grounds for, check your local coffee shop. Many coffee shops (Starbucks included) save bags of their used coffee grounds that you can pick up for free and use for composting. Even if they are moldy or sour, the blueberries will love them.
What about pests and disease? I have not ever had a problem with insect pests or disease. Blueberries are quite hardy shrubs! However, deer will eat them (leaves and berry alike) and some birds will go after the berries. Nylon 1X1 inch deer net draped over plants can help deter both and still allows pollinators in. We don’t tend to have a problem with deer because our yard is fenced. We might have berry eating birds present, but we never have problems with harvest loss because we also have territorial doves that chase off a lot of the less aggressive species. You could give it a try without the net over a few plants and see how it goes! Pruning by deer should not hurt the plant much– you’ll notice new growth before the summer is out!
Speaking of pruning… should you prune blueberries? Yes, but lightly, only to encourage larger berries and discourage overbearing, which can sap the plant. (You don’t want to sap young plants as they are working on getting bigger.) Once the bushes have gone dormant (usually by mid winter,) choose up to 5 old woody looking limbs to prune off at dirt level.
How about feeding? Aside from adding coffee grounds on a regular basis, I feed my blueberry bushes pretty infrequently. I’d say maybe two to four times per year with a general all-purpose organic fertilizer. I don’t feed them anything but coffee grounds when there are berries present on the limbs.
How long will it take to get a harvest and how many berries will I get? Usually blueberry plants will bear the same year that you plant them, even if the plants are small. With a 2 year old plant, you might get a handful of berries. Each year after planting you will get more and more berries. The plants seem to mature at about 5 years old but will continue to get a bit bigger and put on more berries each year. I would estimate that our 7-year old plants put out between 4 and 5 pints each per season now!
There you have my tips on growing these wonderful, easy-to-grow fruit-bearing shrubs. Good luck and many happy harvests to you!