Prune blueberries for bountiful harvests

Maine's wild blueberry fields are a sight to see! Gorgeous blueberries drip from the plants left and right, inviting families of all ages to enjoy their bounty. With memories like this it is natural to want to recreate this paradise in every back garden. Blueberries have become so popular! Gardeners in regions of the United States who couldn't grow blueberry bushes a few centuries ago now have access to recently created hybrids and strains that can survive milder winters or none at all. However, in order to get your blueberry bushes to bring out buckets of fruit, it is important to keep pruning the blueberries each year.

Since blueberries grow in the United States, there are several main types of blueberry bushes. High shrub varieties are the best known and most widespread varieties. This type is native to the northeastern United States and is most likely the mother plant of blueberries you can find in the grocery store. Low bush varieties are more likely to grow wild in New England and Canada and less often in home gardens. Rabbit eye species are bushes better suited to growing in the southern United States or in areas with milder winters. Regardless of the type, prune blueberries the same way.

A newly planted blueberry bush is the only exception to the pruning rules you'll find in this guide. In the first two years of its growth, home builders just need to make sure that the plant is not producing fruit, but that its energy is put into root and sugar cane production. The best time for blueberries to start producing fruit is around the third year, although the most productive time for the plant will be in years 8-10.

A young blueberry plant is best added to a garden with at least one other variety that can be cross-pollinated. An accomplished gardener will plant several and aim for blueberry bushes that produce at different times of the year. Since an adult eats an average of two blueberry worth blueberries per year, even more may be needed.

Blueberry fruits on annual wood. Unlike the raspberry or blackberry, a cane will produce for several years, with the largest harvests being achieved in a third to fifth year of a cane. Therefore, it is important to remember that pruning blueberry bushes is very different from pruning other berries!

Blueberry bushes need to be pruned annually as they age. This usually happens in January, February, or March when the worst of summer snow has passed and you can just start to spot flower buds on your bushes. The best time to prune is a mild late winter or a spring day with no rain or heavy fog.

Why prune blueberries?

Prune blueberriesPruning blueberries is an annual necessity for a good future harvest. Source: OSU

Pruning blueberries may seem a little boring, but it makes all the difference in terms of fruit quality. Ripe bushes particularly benefit from pruning, as old canes can soak up much of the plant's energy without giving up a lot of fruit. Mature bushes often contain 15 to 25 sticks, with sticks being between 1 and 6 years old. Proper pruning will allow you to keep roughly the same amount of sticks for the life of the plant and cut out sticks that have outlived their usefulness.

By removing tired older wood (over 6 years) and much of the annual growth, the blueberry pruning increases the fruit quality and size of the blueberries produced. Also, by increasing the airflow to the center of the plant, you decrease the risk of introducing pests and diseases into your bushes.

Severe winter storms, a seasonal event for people who grow blueberries of the high bush varieties, may need to spend time inspecting their bushes for winter injuries. These injuries can feed disease in early spring when life recovers in warmer weather.

With the right pruning, you should be able to manage your blueberry at a time of year with some pretty quality fruit!

When should blueberries be pruned?

Blueberry stalks after winterAt the end of winter, it's easy to see what needs to be pruned. Source: taratara69

Pruning of blueberries begins at the end of winter and towards the beginning of spring. When the blueberry bush has been bare for several months and has weathered the worst of winter snow, get your scissors out as this is the best time to cut away. Since fresh cuts on blueberry bushes won't tolerate extreme frost, make sure that the chance of winter storms has completely passed.

This is the time when it is easiest to prune blueberries because the canes are easy to tell apart. The supple, often red skin of the younger canes, which are one to two years old, stands out against the gray bark of the older canes. Healthy young canes with the earliest signs of flower buds appear on an annual growth, showing where berries can be expected in the following year.

Pruning back some canes with flower buds may be difficult for the gardener, but it is necessary. 30-50% of the fruit wood needs to be removed when pruning blueberries. Be careful, however, that not all of the fruit wood is cut! It is important that you don't cut off the top of each branch. This is where you let your berries grow.

Prune blueberries step by step

Young and old blueberry woodIt's easy to tell the difference between young and old blueberry wood. Source: John and Anni


Before you even take the plunge and make your first snippet, there are a few important rules you should follow when pruning blueberries. Even pruning can bring with it the possibility of disease, both through disease transfer to dirty scissors and through messy cuts. Before you start, rinse your scissors with alcohol to keep your berries safe. Also, use sharp scissors that will cut cleanly without tearing the stick.

The best time to prune is on a dry day. After pruning, allow the blueberry plant to heal itself before exposing it to rain, which can cause disease from rain splashes from the soil.

Identify fruit and vegetative buds

Without leaves, your blueberry bushes can sometimes look like a bunch of twigs stuck in the ground for better or worse! But take a few minutes and discover what you have in front of you! Take a closer look at the small branches and look for two different types of buds that are just beginning to form. You should be able to see some larger buds in the form of tears and much smaller buds in the form of little triangles that look almost thorny.

Tear buds turn into flowers that turn into delicious blueberries after pollination. The triangular buds turn into leaves and, in the following years, into laterally grown fruit wood. When deciding whether to keep a branch of your blueberry plants, consider the number of tear buds growing on a given branch.

The oldest canes only have a few of these teardrop buds, which indicates it is time to remove them. The canes with the most buds, usually three to five years old, have the most fruit production. Make sure you leave this one.

The first cut

Regardless of the type of blueberry bush you grow, there are some basic pruning guidelines that all gardeners should follow. Every year, cut out the dead wood, wood over 6 years old, crossed wood, and diseased wood. It's easiest to identify these as dark brown or black branches with no signs of new growth.

Old wood is often gray, woody, and stiffer when you try to bend it. Sometimes moss even grows on it. Remove these older sticks to encourage the plant's energy to move on to the younger sticks.

When cutting out deadwood, cut the wood at an angle flush with the branch or flat near the ground. Cutting cuts should be made at a 45 degree angle.

New vs. 6 year growth

Blueberry stalks produce berries on the same sticks every year. While they will only produce berries on new wood, a single stick will produce new growth on the same stick for many years. Each cane peaks in production between years 3 and 5, and the blueberry bushes reach their highest production overall in years 8-10.

Mature bushes should have between 15 and 25 sticks each, but it's best to only have 3-5 new sticks per year. Cut back any excess new canes in your blueberry bushes so that you only have 3-5 new canes for a year.

Cropping for shape and airflow

Lastly, prune the center of a mature blueberry plant to allow increased airflow towards the center of the plant. Without adequate airflow, pests can easily infest the bushes and reduce the chances of a healthy plant. Also, cut away small sticks that grow near the ground, are less than 1 to 2 feet tall, or protrude into an aisle or sidewalk. These are likely to get bent during the season or have fruit that pull the branch towards the ground and cause disease.

Cut out weak shoots, even if they have fruit buds. Remove old growth of branches in the form of branches. The goal is to have blueberry fruits that do not touch fruits from other branches.

Care of plants in the first year

Blueberry bushes in the first and second years require much less aggressive pruning than older plants. It is important to keep young plants from bearing fruit in their early life. Strip off flower buds before they can bloom and set fruit. Don't wait until late in the season to do this as this energy is needed for strong roots and sticks to grow.

Prune the canes to about half their height and remove the branch growth. In this way, the bush is encouraged to have a bushier and more manageable shape. If the bush is doing well the first year, allow fruit production in the second year. Remember to fertilize and mulch too! Your little bush needs a healthy start!

Maintenance after pruning

Green blueberry leaves and fruitProper pruning promotes a flood of new growth and future fruits. Source: Jaconnor

After pruning, apply fertilizer around your plants. They just got a good haircut and need something to eat to start their growing season. While you won't have to fertilize on the same day as pruning, be sure to fertilize before the first spring leaves appear.

If growing blueberries thrive in acidic soils, add an acid-specific fertilizer. A preferred fertilizer among growers is Espoma Holly-Tone. Follow the directions for the type of fertilizer you are working with as the roots are very sensitive to overfeeding. Fertilizers are high in salts, and the roots can get salt blight if you're not careful.

Finally, apply a fresh layer of mulch to the base of the plant. Aim for 1 to 2 inches of mulch, but no more, as the blueberry plant's shallow roots won't tolerate being buried too much. If there is already a layer of mulch in place, push back the layer of mulch before fertilizing and replace when done.

frequently asked Questions

Blueberries Blueberries can be both stunning and productive. Source: Moschell

Q: How do you prune an overgrown blueberry bush?

A: An overgrown blueberry bush is pruned in a similar way to a well-manicured bush. One of the biggest differences was in the percentage of the bush you need to prune back and the lack of flowering on your blueberry bushes in the first year after pruning. Follow the same rules of cutting – remove old sticks, dead wood, crossed wood, and diseased wood. Encourage 3-5 new sticks to grow, but aggressively prune back older sticks to focus new growth on younger ones. Remove any shaggy or twiggy side growth and focus on making room for sturdy fruit stalks to increase fruit production.

Q: Are used coffee grounds good for blueberry bushes?

A: While the myth that coffee grounds acidify the soil is fairly common, it is just not true. Making coffee removes a lot of acid from the coffee grounds, leaving behind a nitrogen-rich waste that is best added to a compost heap. Avoid putting coffee grounds directly into the soil around blueberry plants. Not only does it not acidify your soil, but it can also slow down the roots of the plant by overwhelming them with nitrogen.

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