Blueberries are one of nature’s superfoods, crammed with essential nutrients like vitamins K and C, minerals including manganese and health-boosting polyphenols. They’ve even been proven to help with the old grey matter! If you want to include this fabulous fruit in your garden, there’s no time like the present to get planting. So here, then, is our Planting to Harvest guide to blueberries…
Ideal Blueberry Growing Conditions
You’ll get the most from your blueberries if you can provide a sheltered site, free from buffeting winds, in full sunshine to help those beautiful, dusky berries mature. The bushes are hardy, but avoid frost-prone areas of the garden, which can hamper the springtime flowers.
Most varieties are self-fertile, so in theory you can grow one on its own. In reality, you will get far better pollination – and more fruits – if plants can cross-pollinate. For this reason, it pays to grow at least two different varieties together.
You’ll usually find blueberries sold in ready-to-plant pots. You can plant at any time of year but autumn is best or, if winters are exceptionally cold where you garden, wait until spring.
The soil that blueberries grow in is really important. They’re heathland plants, so there’s little point planting them in anything other than acidic soil. It’s literally fruitless! And they need it really acidic, ideally with a pH of between 4.0 and 5.5. You’ll know your soil is suitable if you can grow other acid-lovers like rhododendrons, azaleas or camellias. Or you can find out your soil’s exact pH using a simple pH test kit.
If your soil is neutral or alkaline, all is not lost – you can amend your soil by adding sulfur chips or an organic soil acidifier several months ahead of planting to slowly bring down soil pH. Or for an immediate fix, plant your blueberries into a dedicated raised bed, filled with acidic, or ericaceous potting mix.
Space plants about five feet (1.5m) apart for best yields; don’t be tempted to space them less than three feet (90cm) apart. Alternatively, plant into large containers of ericaceous potting mix, which will be a lot cheaper than filling an entire raised bed, but make sure never to let them dry out.
Choose a frost-proof pot at least a foot (30cm) wide, with drainage holes in the bottom. Start filling with your ericaceous potting mix then remove the blueberry from its pot. Place it on the potting mix then fill in around the sides with more. The top of the potting mix should end up level with the top of the rootball. Water it thoroughly, topping up the potting mix if necessary as it settles. Optionally, finish with a decorative mulch of pine needles or bark chippings.
Keep the soil or potting mix moist, watering whenever it gets dry. Mains water will gradually raise the pH levels, so use collected rainwater instead to keep the soil acidic.
Container plants will need regular feeding using a liquid fertilizer specially formulated for acid-loving plants. Plants in the ground simply need mulches topped up occasionally using an acidic organic material such as leafmold, bark chippings, pine needles or composted sawdust. Do not use manure, which is both too rich and too alkaline for blueberries.
Transplant container blueberries into larger pots as soon as the roots fill the container, and protect flowers from any late frosts using row cover fabric.
One of the great attractions of blueberries to first-time fruit growers is that they require very little pruning. Any pruning that is necessary is done towards the end of winter. Begin by cutting out any dead stems and stem tips, then thin any overcrowded branches and any growing too close to the ground. To keep established plants productive cut out about a quarter of the oldest branches every year. And that’s it!
To stop birds guzzling the berries before you do, consider setting up a fruit cage, or at least covering plants with netting to keep them off.
The berries are ready when they’ve taken on their distinctive blue color all over and pull away easily from their stalks. Leave them on the plant for a few days after they’ve turned completely blue for the best flavor. Berries are unlikely to ripen all at once, so go over plants several times so you don’t miss any.
Fresh is best, but if you enjoy a bumper crop – lucky you! – you can freeze the excess or use your blueberries in any number of lip-smackingly delicious preserves.