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Blueberries – a step-by-step growing guide

Part of the Heather family, Blueberry bushes are very hardy to the Britsh weather and with the right soil conditions they will provide delicious fruit for years to come.

In the Spring, the Blueberry bushes produce clusters of beautiful white flowers that are occasionally tinged pink, followed by blue-black berries—often treated by gardeners as an ornamental shrub producing deep red leaves in the Autumn months.

The Highbush is the only type of blueberry naturally found in Britain. However, different varieties can be purchased from specialist nurseries. Each variety varies in cropping time, yields and flavour.

Although the blueberry plant isn’t particularly difficult or demanding, they require a long period of time to establish as well as having the right garden soil conditions. They also thrive in large tubs that are filled with acidic ericaceous compost.

After bearing sweet berry fruits, the deciduous bushy shrub drops its leaves.

Quick Facts

    • Botanical / Scientific Name – Vaccinium corymbosum
    • Plant type – Deciduous shrub / Fruit tree
    • Sun Exposure – Full Sun
    • Soil type – Well drained acid soil.
    • Soil pH – Acidic (between 4 and 5.5)
    • Bloom time – Spring
    • Flower Colour – Pinky White blooms in the Spring.
    • Special Features – colourful foliage and part of the Heather family. 

Plant Size

Up to 1.8m tall and 1.5m wide

Hardiness

Frost hardy

Location

All areas – must be sheltered from strong winds.

Best Position

Full Sun

Yield

2 – 5kg per bush after five years

Soil

Well-drained acid soil

Sowing

Purchase as plants / takes cuttings

Harvest

May – October

Site and Soil preparation 

The blueberry is a member of the Heather family and must be sheltered from the wind in a sunny or slightly sheltered position in the garden. Blueberries thrive in a full sun location but will also tolerate partial shade. 

Blueberry plants require a well-drained, moist and peaty acidic soil, with a pH level of between 4-5.5. It is often found that blueberry plants will not succeed in neutral or alkaline soils.

If the soil is not gritty, acid and rich in an organic matter, fill each planting hole with a combination of moss, peat, soil, sawdust and coarse sand. 

Before planting your blueberry plants, we recommend the following steps:

  • First check the soil’s acidity with a soil test kit. If the pH is below 4 or over 7.5 you cannot plant out into the ground. Grow in large pots or tubs using an acid lime-free /ericaceous compost. Alternatively you could plant blueberries in a Rhododendron border.
  • If the soil has a pH that is 5 or higher fork in an acid lime-free compost ericaceous compost or flowers of sulphur twelve months before planting out.
  • If the soil is suitable prepare the area by digging a square hole about 50cm for each bush.
  • Break up the subsoil mixing in topsoil and damp peat in equal quantities. Manure will burn the roots so do not use.
  • Fill the hole with the mixture of peat and topsoil and allow it to settle.

Top Tip – Fertiliser and watering

Avoid using any fertilisers that contain calcium or lime. When watering, use lime-free rainwater instead of tap water.

Purchasing your Plants and Planting out

Purchasing Blueberry Plants

  • Purchase bare-rooted plants from a specialist nursery or garden centre early on in the season.
  • When choosing your plants make sure they have at least three strong stems and little or no sign of leaf growth. Look to purchase two to three-year-old bushes.
  • Avoid purchasing plants that look to dry out or sickly. Ensure that the plant is correctly labelled ensuring you have the correct variety you are looking to add to your garden. 
  • To ensure good pollination/fruit formation purchase at least two bushes preferably of different varieties.

Planting out your Blueberry bushes

During late Autumn to early Spring, this is the best time to plant out your two to three-year-old bushes.

  • Prune any damaged dead or extremely long roots.
  • Rub out large fruit buds to prevent too-early fruit production.
  • Plant to set each bush approximately 1.5m apart a mature blueberry bush can grow to 1.8m tall and 1.5m wide.
  • Dig a hole that is twice the width and one and a half times the depth of the roots. Mound the soil in the centre and spread roots over the mound.
  • Fill the hole with a mixture of firm well-watered soil mulch with composted oak leaves. Spread pine needles and acidic compost / ericaceous compost annually.

Cultivation

During the early Spring, apply a well-balanced compound fertiliser, mixing it with mulch. At the end of mid-spring, apply sulphate of ammonia using the recommended guidelines on the packaging. The mulch should be moist when the fertilisers are applied. 

From the third Winter onwards, cut out all weak and cut back all the old wood to the base. The aim is to encourage the new growth as the Blueberries will bear the fruit on the tips of the previous season’s growth. 

Weed lightly by hand to avoid damaging or disturbing the roots as blueberries are surface rooting. You should find that by adding a peat mulch annually during the spring months will help keep down the weeds. 

If you are growing blueberries in large pots or tubs, ensure you provide a generous amount of rainwater during the growing season. Provide your bushes with a high potash feed every ten days from the start of flowering to the beginning of berry ripening.

Top Tip – Making your ericaceous compost

Mix moss peat with a small amount of Bone Meal, Sulphate of Potash and Sulphate of Ammonia.

Creating new Blueberry plants

Layering

  • In early Autumn choose a long healthy shoot cutting a tongue slightly into the heartwood allowing it to be bent so that it reaches the ground.
  • Then peg the shoot down with metal wire. 
  • Check to see if the growing shoot requires cane support and add if required. 
  • After one or two years sever the plant and set it into a permanent site.

How to take cuttings

  • In the early Summer use a sharp knife and cut the semi-ripe shoots with a heel of old wood.
  • Remove the soft tip of the cutting and dip the heel in rooting powder following the recommended guidelines.
  • Plant the cutting into equal part sand and peat. Then place into a cold frame.
  • Spray frequently with rainwater ensuring that the cutting is well-rooted.
  • Then once it is established plant out into a larger pot or tub.

Harvesting your Blueberries

Depending on the variety that you choose, the blueberries can be picked/harvested from mid-summer to the early Autumn. The big question is, how much fruit should I expect from each bush? There is a wide range of factors that can affect crop yield from soil conditions to the age of the Blueberry plant. 

An established plant should yield between 2 -5kg of fruit. The best time to harvest is when the blueberries easily fall off the plant. Blueberries often do not ripen all at once, so go over areas of the bush several times. You will find that the ripe berries are soft with a greyish waxy bloom.

Blueberries can typically be stored in a container in the refrigerator for around 1-2 weeks. They can make a perfect addition to your breakfast pancakes, smoothies, pies, tarts, cakes and muffins!

If you wish to freeze some Blueberries, firstly store on a tray in the freezer. Then when the blueberries have frozen, place them into a resealable bag. 

Top Tip – Harvesting your Blueberries

The berries on the bush typically do not become sweet until at least three to four days after it has reached its mature berry colour.

Are there any other jobs after harvesting?

Pruning

If your Blueberry plant has been planted within the past three years, there is no need to prune. After this period, though, to encourage new growth, prune each Winter as the fruit is borne on the previous wood growth. 

Any shoots that you find are dead, weak, damaged, or cross branches should be cut out using secateurs. This will allow the new shoots to thrive and provide a good crop for the following harvest.

In the Spring, scatter blood, fish and bone around the plants and mulch with peat. Ensure that you regularly water during dry weather using soft water/rainwater where possible.

Blueberry Varieties

This variety is the best for cold areas and northern regions. They produce large and pale blueberries that are sweet and excellent flavour.

Typically begins to fruit from mid-August in the South of England and two weeks later elsewhere. This variety is particularly good for making pies.

A mild flavoured variety that typically produces a heavy crop of large berries that ripen in the late Summer.

Drought resistant and can grow vigorously with a height and spread of 1.5 metres.

Produces a strong yield of large flavoursome fruit that often appear in long clusters in the early Autumn.

Produces a heavy crop of large and acidic berries during July in the South of England and two weeks later everywhere else.

Typically a hardy plant that resists disease.

A fast-growing bush that produces a large crop at the end of August in the South of England and two weeks later elsewhere.

Produces an attractive fruit full of good flavour.

A large branching bush variety that ripens during the late Summer that has exceptionally good flavour.

A typically large and hardy variety which produces light-blue berries. A popular choice for the shrub border.

Produces very large berries that fruit from the end of July into August in South of England, two weeks later elsewhere.

Pests, diseases and problems

As a general rule, you will find that Blueberries are typically free from pests, diseases and problems. Although during the fruiting season, birds may become an issue.

Birds can become a problem before and during the harvesting of the fruit. In order to prevent this, cover the blueberry bush with netting before the ripening of the fruit.

If you have more than one bush, you can erect a fruit cage framework using mesh netting.

Check the fruit cage regularly for any birds that may have found their way in.

This is likely due to the soil being too alkaline; this could eventually lead to the bush dying.

To increase the acidity in the soil, during the spring months, use ammonium sulphate and potassium sulphate fertiliser.

A more natural and chemical-free way of doing this would be to mulch with pine needles.

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