When to plant blueberries?

How to Grow, Feed and Harvest Blueberries

Look for blueberry varieties from the species matched to your region. For colder northern gardens, try varieties of lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium), hardy from U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 6, or northern highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum), hardy from USDA zones 4 through 7. Half-high blueberries, crosses between these two northern species, flourish in USDA zones 3 through 7. Plant northern blueberries in spring, so roots become well-established before winter arrives.
Southeastern gardens suit varieties of rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium ashei), native to the Southeast and hardy from USDA zones 7 through 9. From the South and Southwest along the West Coast, look to southern highbush blueberries. These crosses between northern highbush and native southern blueberries excel in western USDA zones 7 through 11. Plant southern types from fall and winter through spring, so blueberries root well before summer heat hits.
Blueberries will flower and fruit sparsely their first year in the ground, but it’s best to remove the first-year blossoms by hand. This keeps new blueberries focused on good root development instead of fruit and seeds. They’ll reward you with better harvests in years to come.

Growing More Than One

The more, the merrier with blueberries. Grow two or more varieties for higher-quality berries and larger harvests, which naturally result when blueberries cross-pollinate. Blueberries come in early-, mid- or late-season-bearing varieties. Extend the berry season more than three summer months by choosing varieties with overlapping bloom times from each category.
If your planting area is limited or contained, chose blueberries suited to small spaces. Some bushes grow 1 to 2 feet tall and wide, but many blueberry bushes for home gardens reach 6 feet tall and wide, or larger.
Blueberry bushes are also high on ornamental beauty. Spring brings delicate white or pink-and-white flowers, and glossy leaves that might carry hints of pink, lime or maroon. In fall, blueberry leaves blaze with red hues that rival any autumn display. In between, blueberry fruit shine with shades of blue.

Getting Soil Right

Blueberries belong to the same plant family as azaleas and rhododendrons. Like these relatives, blueberries prefer soil with high organic matter and pH levels in acidic ranges. Necessary blueberry nutrients, such as iron, can get lost in high-pH soil. These nutrients stay most available with soil pH near 4.5 to 5.5.

Soil amendments help create a healthy planting foundation. Layer 4 inches of pre-moistened peat moss, which helps lower soil pH, over your planting area, and then add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of earthworm castings per 100 square feet. Mix the peat moss and earthworm castings into the soil 10 to 12 inches deep to increase organic matter and lower soil pH.

If your garden has high-alkaline soil of 7.0 pH or higher, keeping pH low enough for blueberries can be difficult. Container growing eliminates the problem. Accommodate blueberry roots by using a pot that is at least 16 inches in diameter and that will provide ample drainage. Use a commercial potting mix designed for acid-loving plants, or mix equal parts compost, pre-moistened peat moss and soil to give your container blueberries an opportunity to thrive. Add 1/2 cup of Pennington Earthworm Castings for beneficial matter and microorganisms container blueberries need.

Watering Blueberries

Using the right fertilizer at the right time supports your plants’ beauty and fruit. Without the extra nutrients blueberry plants prefer, leaves and berries disappoint. Blueberry roots are sensitive to overfertilizing, so don’t overdo it, and always water bushes before and after fertilizing. Feed established blueberries as growth begins in early spring, and feed again six weeks later.

Feeding Blueberries

Using the right fertilizer at the right time supports your plants’ beauty and fruit. Without the extra nutrients blueberry plants prefer, leaves and berries disappoint. Blueberry roots are sensitive to overfertilizing, so don’t overdo it, and always water bushes before and after fertilizing. Feed established blueberries as growth begins in early spring, and feed again six weeks later.
Fertilizers designed for acid-loving plants provide the nutrients blueberries need.Fertilizers designed for acid-loving plants provide the nutrients blueberries need. Lilly Miller Rhododendron Evergreen & Azalea Food delivers complete nutrition for up to four months and helps acidify soil. Application amounts vary based on plant and container size, so follow label directions closely.

Where Blueberries Grow

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Ever wonder where blueberries grow? You’re not alone! Many people are interested in learning where their produce comes from, and discovering where blueberries grow near you can help you make the most of their year-round availability.

Most of the blueberries you find in the supermarket are highbush blueberries. They are plump, juicy and sweet, with vibrant colors ranging from deep purple-blue to blue-black, and highlighted by a silvery sheen called a bloom.

Dr. Frederick Coville and Elizabeth White first cultivated highbush blueberries in the early 20th Century, and today, dozens of commercial highbush varieties are thriving across the United States, Canada, South America and around the world.

Blueberries in season

Fresh blueberries are now available year-round. You can buy North American blueberries from April through October, and South American blueberries from November through March. The peak season for fresh blueberries in North America runs from mid-June to mid-August, with the earliest harvest in the southern states and west coast and the latest harvest in the northern states and Canada. Learn more about how blueberries grow.

Blueberry growing regions

Blueberry bushes can pop up all over the U.S., and while 38 states grow blueberries commercially, ten states account for more than 98% of U.S. commercial production: California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington. In Canada, British Columbia is the primary producing region for highbush blueberries. In South America Chile is the largest producing country, followed by Argentina, Peru and Uruguay.

Blueberry forms

More than half of all highbush blueberries are shipped to the fresh market, to keep pace with the ever-increasing demand. The rest are frozen, pureed, concentrated, canned or dried to be used in a wide range of food products, including yogurt, pastries, muffins, cereals and health bars. That way, blueberry goodness is available just about anywhere you look. Watch this video to learn more about where blueberries grow and to see how blueberries travel from farm to table.

Blueberry Bush Care

Once your blueberry bush is planted and established, it will grow well for years with a little sunshine, water and occasional shot of fertilizer.

View in Plant Library Blueberry

Blueberries are divided into 3 classes by fruit ripening time:
Early Season:Fruit ripens in early to mid June
Mid Season: Fruit ripens in mid July
Late Season: Fruit ripens from July into August

Growing

Plant them in the spring or fall. Blueberries grow best is full sun. They need acidic soils with a pH of 4.0 to 4.5. They like clay and other poor or rocky soils. You may need to increase the acidity in your soil to grow healthy bushes. Space blueberry bushes about three to four feet apart and one inch deeper in the soil then in the nursery.
Mix in healthy amounts of compost and other organic matter. Keep a thick layer of mulch around your blueberry bushes to eliminate weeds,and help keep the soil moist.
Water well after planting and in the first few weeks as necessary to promote good root growth. Blueberries require one inch of rainfall per week and two inches when flowering.
A new bush will produce fruit in the third year. After that, your bush will thrive for many years to come with just a little care and maintenance.
Add fertilizer once in the spring and again in late summer. The latter application will help to promote buds for next year.

Pruning

Blueberry bushes should be pruned every year in order to keep them producing high yields of good quality fruit. Prune the plants when they are fully dormant during the late winter or early spring (January-March). For the first two years after planting, simply remove any dead branches and all weak, spindly growth. For plants that have been established for three years or more follow these four steps:

1. Prune out any weak, low-growing or diseased canes.

2. Prune out all canes that are over six years old (these are usually the thickest canes, which are gray in color with peeling bark). Blueberry canes tend to be less productive once they get more than six years old and should be pruned out in favor of younger, more productive canes. Cut the old canes to the ground level unless new cane growth has been sparse, in which case leave a four to eight inch stub above the ground. New canes may sprout from these stubs.

3. Thin the remaining canes, leaving those with the most vigorous shoot growth (long, thick branches with good fruit buds). Leave six to seven vigorous two to five-year-old canes and two or three one-year-old canes per bush. A mature blueberry plant should have six to ten healthy canes varying in age from one to six years old.

4. Remove any weak fruiting shoots on the remaining canes, especially those under six inches in length. Most fruit is produced on vigorous one-year-old shoots on healthy two to five year old canes. The fruit buds on these shoots are large and teardrop shaped. Each bud will produce a cluster of five to eight flowers. The shoots also have smaller, pointed buds that will produce leaves.

Pollination

High bush blueberries varieties are self fertile but they will produce better and more reliable crops with another variety for pollination.

Plants That Resemble Blueberries

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Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), one of the tastiest summertime treats in gardens or in fields, grow blue to dark blue berries. Different species thrive in the wild, and a multitude of hybrids and cultivars are available to grow in the garden. Blueberry bushes have oval, smooth-edged leaves with pointed tips. Other plants that closely resemble blueberries are relatives of blueberries and also in the heath family, such as huckleberry (Gaylussacia spp.), salal (Gaultheria shallon) and bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). Some unrelated plants may have similar round, purplish to black berries that may not be safe to eat. Don’t eat fruit from a plant unless you’re certain of its identity.

Blueberry Characteristics

Blueberry fruits usually have a whitish, powdery coating and numerous tiny seeds. The blue color can vary from pale to deep purplish blue. Berries grow singly or in clusters on woody, deciduous bushes that go from very low to tall. Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 8, is 6 feet tall and wide. Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium, USDA zones 3 through 6) is only 8 to 18 inches tall. Rabbit-eye blueberry (Vaccinium ashei, USDA zones 7 through 9), native to the Southern United States, reaches 10 feet high.

Huckleberry Bushes

Huckleberries (Gaylussacia spp.) generally have smaller, shinier and darker-colored fruits than blueberries. However, instead of small seeds like those of the blueberry, huckleberry fruits have 10 large, hard seeds. Blue huckleberry (Gaylussacia frondosa, USDA zones 7 through 9) is about 3 feet tall and has blue fruits with a white powder coating very similar to that of blueberries. With blue to black berries, black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata, USDA zones 5 through 9) reaches 1 to 3 feet tall. Huckleberry leaves have golden yellow glands on the leaf undersides, which blueberries lack. The glands are visible through a magnifying lens.

Salal Bushes

Native to coastal California and the Pacific Northwest, salal (Gaultheria shallon), hardy in USDA zones 7 through 10, grows well in woodland gardens. Plants are 3 to 4 feet tall, but up to 10 feet tall in shaded areas. The bluish fruits don’t have much flavor. The leaves are larger than blueberry leaves, and glossy. There are other gaultheria varieties, some of which are ground covers.

Bilberry Plants

A small-growing blueberry relative, bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus, USDA zones 3 through 7) bushes are low and spreading. They’re useful as ground covers and have pea-sized dark blue to blackish edible berries. Berries are dried, eaten fresh and used in preserves.

Pokeberry Fruits

Pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) plants don’t resemble blueberry bushes, because they’re fast-growing, non-woody perennial plants. They reach 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide, and have large, soft leaves and red stems. The deep purple-black, glistening berries appear in late summer to early fall in an elongated cluster somewhat resembling grapes. Fruits are toxic and all plant parts are poisonous. The leaves can cause skin irritation. Pokeberry fruits are easy to differentiate from blueberries by the lack of whitish powder, the fruit arrangement, and the late ripening period.

Black Nightshade

A common, weedy plant you can find in disturbed areas almost everywhere, black nightshade (Solanum nigrum, Solanum ptycanthum) is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 7 and can be an annual elsewhere. It’s a perennial rather than a shrub. The rounded fruits are first green, then turn purple-black to black, and grow in small clusters that dangle from the stems. Fruits are smaller than blueberries and don’t have the whitish bloom. They can be toxic.

Buckthorn Bushes

Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica, USDA zones 3 through 7) is a native of Europe that is now naturalized and invasive in North America. The large shrub grows 6 to 20 feet tall, and branches end in sharp spines. Berries are glistening, purplish-black to black, appearing in fall. Although there are unpleasant purgative effects if the fruit is eaten, they’re not seriously toxic.

Picking your own food in the wild produces no easier or tastier result than it does with berries. And there’s more than you might think out there, both in terms of sheer volume and types. Here’s how to find the good ones.

Hopefully we all know that there’s plants and berries and stuff out there that can kill us. You’ll find plenty of guides to identifying poisonous species or even methods for determining if an unknown species is good for you or will kill you. I know very little about which plants are poisonous and don’t care to touch my lips to, lick or taste anything suspect, so rather I just study which wild plants exist in the areas through which I travel and familiarize myself with the ones I’d like to eat.

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No guide on the Internet or in print is going to fully prepare you to identify plants in outdoors, in the real world. A picture cannot capture the scale and perspective and variety of nature. The absolute best way to learn about edibles is to go out there and try some. Feel what the plant feels like, smell what it smells like and touch it to see how it responds. If you want to try a new plant, get an experienced local to show it to you, then try to learn where it grows and when, in what conditions and what other plants may resemble it. It’s this familiarity that breeds confidence. But, this is at least a basic guide to what’s out there, what it looks like and whether or not it’s worth the effort of picking.

Blueberries

You’ll find wild blueberries across southern Canada, in the Sierra Nevada, Cascades and along the east coast from Maine to North Carolina. They grow on low bushes that spread across the ground in sort of a carpet. I like to eat them straight off that bush, just crawling around in the woods, popping them in my mouth as I find them. If you’re less greedy, gather them up and put them in your pancakes. They’ll be dark blue, with a white, dusty “frosting” of wax on the outside and ripe flesh is a pale green. They’re best from May to August, depending on elevation and climate.

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Cloudberries

My absolute favorite berry of all time, cloudberries grow on the ground in the tundra of northern Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia. The fruit looks like sort of a golden-yellow raspberry and is very tart. You can eat them fresh, where that tartness is something of an acquired taste (I again crawl around hoovering them up), or you can gather them and turn them into a sweetened jam, which is probably a little more palatable for most people. They grow so far north that the plants are only uncovered by snow for a few months a year. Their bright color and round shape is very evident on the green tundra.

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Blackberries

Found across the eastern United States and the coastal west, picking blackberries is a ritual for children each summer, picking their way through the spiky bramble to collect ripe fruit. You’ll know its ripe when it’s a nice, even black. Red or white fruits will be sour and gross. Great fresh, or covered with milk and honey.

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Muscadine

You’ll find these wild grapes growing on tree-hanging vines in the south. You squeeze the flesh out of the tough skin and only eat that. Like the best grape you’ve ever eaten, just full of large seeds. Basically, just look for grape leaves hanging from a tree; the fruit is purple when ripe.

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Huckleberries

Found across the eastern US and at higher elevations out west, huckleberries come in colors from red to blue to black and can be from 5-10mm across when ripe. Due to their variation and resemblance to poisonous varieties, it’s especially important to positively ID this fruit as it exists in your region. The taste is often compared to that of a blueberry, but I find them to be quite a bit sweeter.

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Buffaloberries

No, this isn’t a euphemism for testicles. A little red and white fruit that grows on a waxy green leaf in northern climes, the taste is quite bitter, but bears seem to like them. For that reason, they work best as a pie filling or with similar, sugared preparation.

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Elderberries

Large clusters of small black berries grow on medium-sized shrubs in western forests, while other varieties in other colors grow everywhere from South America to Europe. The bitter taste isn’t very good to eat, but Euros turn them into a cordial, liquor or wine, which is unbearably sweet.

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Gooseberries

These bulbous red or green fruits are said to grow on trees across northern states from Maine to Minnesota, but I’ve never seen or tasted one, so they must be rare. They’re said to taste like sour grapes.

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Mulberries

Little red partitioned fruits that grow on trees, these have a strong taste, making them most popular in dried form where they’re used in teas. Our native red mulberries are under attack from imported Asian white mulberries, which are taking over their habitat and outgrowing the native plant.

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Chokeberries

These are so sour they’ll make your mouth pucker, hence the name. They’re actually quite tasty and can be eaten raw. You’ll find them in eastern swamps. They can be red, black or purple.

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Dewberries

Very similar to blackberries and raspberries, except the black fruit grows on a low, trailing vine rather than in a dense bramble vine. They’re nice and sweet like their cousins too, even if they are a rare sight.

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Pawpaw

A small tree that grows the largest tree fruit native to North America. That fruit is typically two to six inches across and ranges from greenish yellow to brown on the outside, with a yellow flesh studded by large brown seeds. If you can find one, you’re in for a treat, it’s sort of a cross between a mango and a banana. They crow across eastern states from New York to Georgia and as far west as eastern Texas.

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Salmonberries

These grow in the damp coastal forests of the west coast, from northern California to southern Alaska. Think a raspberry that grows on a tree with a really pretty pink flower.

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Saskatoons

Like a blueberry that grows on a tree, but not quite as sweet. They grow across the west, but a bit of a cult has sprung up around them in Canada, where they’re revered for their supposed vitamin and antioxidant-packed health benefits.

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Sea Grapes

Looks like a bunch of green grapes, but grows around the caribbean on sand, where grapes don’t. They’re ripe when the green fruits turn purple. The taste is said to combine sweetness with acidity and they’re sometimes fermented into wine or vinegar.

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Strawberries

You know what a strawberry looks and tastes like; wild varieties are smaller and tastier. They grow across the US and southern Canada, but are a rare sight. If you find a wild one, eat it. They peak in early spring, just after the snow melts and you can spot them from afar by their white flower growing low to the ground.

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Barberries

This invader from Europe is now established along both sides of the Canadian border. The berries grow on a thorny shrub, making them hard to gather and the reward may not be worth they effort; they’re very sour. High in pectin, they are good for making jam though.

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Raspberries

You’ll find wild raspberries across most of the US and Canada tangled up in thorny brambles. Look for those on the edge of forests, where trees meet grass. They bloom in late spring and produce berries in summer. Try and keep an eye out for the red berries as you’re hiking, they’re mostly a berry of opportunity. Leave the white ones alone and pull the ones that are a nice, deep red.

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Top photo: Stephen Klopp

IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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