Blueberries are not only delicious and highly nutritious, they’re also attractive shrubs in their own right, with pretty white flowers in spring and lovely leaf colour in autumn.
Blueberry bushes are easy to grow, and don’t need much attention. The main thing to remember is that they need to be grown in acidic soil and ideally, watered with rainwater. If you don’t have acidic soil in your garden, blueberries grow very well in pots.
Blueberries are ideal for smaller gardens, as they reach just over one metre in height and remain fairly compact. It’s best to grow at least two blueberry varieties close to each other for the best crop. This means you can extend the cropping season, too – some varieties fruit in July, others in August.
How to grow blueberries
Blueberries need an acidic soil and a sunny spot to thrive. Plant them in the ground if your garden has acidic soil, or in pots of peat-free ericaceous compost if you don’t. While many blueberry varieties are self-fertile and a solo plant will generally fruit, if you grow two or more, they tend to produce higher yields and bigger fruit. Like all acid-loving plants, blueberries are best watered with rainwater. Feed weekly during the growing season with a liquid feed designed for acid-loving plants.
More on growing blueberries:
Where to plant blueberries
The key to growing blueberry plants successfully is getting the soil conditions right. They need acidic soil, with a pH of between 4 and 5.5, and the texture should be light and free-draining.
If you don’t have acidic soil in your garden, you can grow blueberries in pots of peat-free ericaceous (acidic) compost.
Blueberries will fruit in partial shade but for the best crops, grow in a sunny position.
When and how to plant a blueberry bush
You can plant a blueberry bush at any time of the year, except when the ground is frozen. For the widest range of varieties, it’s best to buy online or via mail order.
If planting in the ground, dig a hole that’s a little larger than the plant’s previous pot. Plant to the same depth as the ‘soil tide mark’ (if it’s bare-root) or to the same depth as the pot. Mulch with composted pine needles or bark. Don’t add well-rotted manure as this will make the soil too alkaline. Water generously and continue to water well while the plant establishes.
If you’re planting a young plant into a container, choose one that is at least 30cm (12in) in diameter and be sure to use ericaceous compost. Again, plant at the same level that the plant was planted in the field or in its previous pot. Firm in well, water with rainwater and don’t allow the compost to dry out.
How to care for blueberries
Water blueberries regularly, with rainwater rather than tap water whenever possible. Tap water contains lime and this can make the soil more alkaline over time. A change in soil acidity levels can cause blueberry leaves to yellow with chlorosis. A spring mulch of pine tree needles or bark chippings is a good way to maintain soil acidity.
If you’re growing blueberries in pots, don’t allow them to dry out – you could put a saucer or tray underneath. Feed them weekly with a liquid feed designed for acid-loving plants. Repot into a larger pot 45-50cm (18-20in) after a couple of years, in spring. Then, each autumn or spring, remove the top layer of compost and replace with fresh. It’s a good idea to repot completely every couple of years in fresh compost, as blueberries are hungry feeders.
How to prune blueberries
Blueberries don’t need pruning in their first two years – simply remove any crossing or rubbing branches. Once established, bushes benefit from regular pruning to keep them healthy and productive. Prune while the plants are still dormant in late February or March, when it’s easier to distinguish the fruit buds from the leaf buds (the fruit buds are rounder and fatter).
Firstly, tidy the plant by removing any dead, diseased or crossing branches. Then cut out around a quarter of the less productive, older branches which are thicker and pale grey in colour. The aim is to keep the younger, more productive branches that are two or three years old – they should be reddish brown, with lots of fat fruit buds on them. Blueberries tend to send out horizontal branches close to the ground – these can be removed too. You can also remove the spindly tips of branches to keep the plant more compact.
How to harvest blueberries
You can start harvesting blueberries from midsummer, over a few weeks as they ripen gradually. Gently pick off the deepest blue berries, leaving the greener ones to continue ripening. It will take several years for your plant to crop heavily but you should enjoy fruits in the first summer.
Blueberries are best eaten freshly picked, but freeze very well. Frozen blueberries work well when baking or when used in smoothies, jams or compotes.
How to propagate blueberries
You can take semi-ripe cuttings from your blueberry plants in mid summer.
Growing blueberries: problem solving
Birds, especially pigeons and blackbirds, may be a problem as the fruit starts to ripen – you could cover the bushes with nets to deter them, but take care to ensure birds and other wildlife don’t get caught in them.
Look out for yellowing leaves, which can be a sign of chlorosis. This is due to a change in the pH of the soil and will kill your blueberries if you don’t act quickly. Be vigilant if growing blueberries in a pot or if your soil isn’t naturally acidic. It’s worth checking the pH of the soil annually to monitor conditions. To treat, repot with fresh compost, water with rainwater and add a liquid fertiliser for ericaceous plants.
Occasionally blueberry bushes may only fruit every two years, producing a very heavy crop one year and none the next. This can be remedied by corrected by pruning out some of the older branches in winter.
In this Quick tips video, David Hurrion explains why blueberries might not flower, and how to resolve the problem:
Advice on buying blueberries
- While you don’t always need a pollination partner, you’ll likely get a bigger crop if you do use one. Try a ‘collection’ of blueberries, which have been selected to ensure they flower at the same time
- Always grow your blueberries in acidic soil. if you don’t have acidic soil, grow blueberries in pots of peat-free ericaceous compost
Where to buy blueberries online
Where to buy peat-free ericaceous compost online
Blueberry varieties to try
- ‘Earliblue’ – an early ripening variety, producing a good crop of large, light blue sweet berries, plus good autumn colour
- ‘Brigitta’ – with large fruits that ripen later in the season, at the end of August. It needs to be grown with other blueberry varieties, as it needs cross-pollination for a good crop
- Bluecrop – produces masses of fruits in August. It’s self-fertile, but for best results grow with a pollination partner
- ‘Spartan’ RHS AGM – an early- to mid-season cropper, with large, sweet fruits
- ‘Duke’ RHS AGM – a very popular variety, that produces good yields of medium to large fruit. It flowers later but fruits early, so it is good for areas with a shorter summer season
- ‘Pink Sapphire’ – a new variety with pink-white, bell shaped flowers in spring and fruit that ripens to a deep pink. With bright orange leaves in autumn, that fade to deep red, it offers a lot of ornamental interest too