A Guide to Blueberry Growing
Blueberries have been an important crop to North America for hundreds of years. They provided sustenance for Native Americans, and were seen as a privilege for early settlers. During the Civil War they were canned and given to Union troops from the shores of the Potomac to the outskirts of Atlanta. They even captured the imagination of influential Americans, like Robert Frost, who wrote in his poem Blueberries:
You ought to have seen what I saw on my way
To the village, through Mortenson’s pasture to-day:
Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
Today, blueberries remain important, and no place is this more evident than in Maine, which produces 15 percent of North America’s blueberries and has named the wild blueberry the state fruit.
Due to our nation’s love and the importance of blueberries, the month of July has been named Blueberry Month. We would regret not honoring this and since blueberry growers are numerous and found all over the country, we have a few tips to ensure a successful harvest year in and out. So without further delay, here they are.
Find Sun – Although blueberries tend to exist in semi-shaded areas in nature, you will want to find an area that gets plenty of sun. This will pay off once your plants mature, because sunshine promotes the fruiting process.
Check and Monitor the Soil – This is one of the more important parts of growing blueberry bushes, because they thrive in soil that is acidic. Keeping the pH levels close to five is essential. Prior to planting you’ll want to test the soil, and if the pH is too high, adding granular sulfur can help. About one pound for every 50 feet works well, and it will have to be tilled or worked into the soil. Be sure to test the soil over the years, because soil tends to return to its natural state.
Mulch Every Year – Mulching to a depth of at least three inches supports healthy plant growth, and the mulch should be replenished each year. Sawdust and pine bark work well for blueberry bushes, but fresh sawdust usually needs supplemental nitrogen to combat the increased microbial activity.
Water Regularly – Once the bushes have been planted it’s time to start watering. One to two inches of water a week promotes the fruiting process. Watering the bush after it has been harvested can support next year’s crop, so keep watering through August and September. Once the plant’s leaves have dropped, watering can cease.
Protect Your Bushes – Blueberries are nutritious and delicious, and because of this you’ll find critters of all kinds rummaging through your plants, especially birds. Netting is the best way to provide protection, and our Polyethylene Mesh Game Bird Netting or Poly Mesh Netting are ideal for this application. Be sure to design the netting’s frame, so that it is tall enough to accommodate a growing blueberry bush – eight feet should provide plenty of room. Also keep the bottom anchored to the ground to prevent the entrance of deer and other ground animals.
You can also spray or treat the bushes to repel birds. Surprisingly, grape Kool-Aid can help with this. Mix grape Kool-Aid with a gallon of water and then spray this solution on the bushes. This is inexpensive and effective, because the grape Kool-Aid contains methyl anthranilate, a compound that birds find disgusting. You’ll want to apply this several times throughout the growing season. The same technique can be done, except by substituting table sugar for Kool-Aid. Birds don’t have the enzymes needed to digest sugar, and research conducted at Cornell University found that a sugar solution helped reduce overall damage to blueberry plants.
Prune Every Spring – Pruning supports the longevity, viability and productivity of the plant. Young plants don’t require the pruning that mature plants do. They produce many canes during the first few years, but this rate will reduce as the plant grows taller. Many of these canes will have to be removed, as they are frequently damaged in the beginning. Any canes that are broken, damaged by insects or affected by disease should be removed. The goal is to create a plant that grows upwards, while still maintaining a canopy that allows light in, so you’ll want to remove any canes that grow too far outwards. Removing flower buds will promote proper fruiting, so stay on top of this.
After the bushes have reached the age of three, it’s time to be selective in the canes that are kept. You’ll want to remove any canes that are twisted and warped, so that new canes are permitted to grow, as well as canes that are over one inch in diameter. Canes that are larger than this generally aren’t as productive as smaller canes. At this point you’ll also want to limit the number of new canes to two a year. A good technique is to keep canes of varying ages. For the most part, canes become less productive between the ages of six to eight, so these older canes should be removed to make room for future, more productive canes.
Follow these tips, and you’ll rarely hear the drum of a cavernous pale. Here’s to Blueberry Month.