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Blueberries: Tips for growing quality bushes

May 11th, 2011 | Category: Growing

by Chris Elder

Growing blueberries in our area is as regular as the rain. Northwest counties grow acres and acres of this popular berry, with Whatcom County leading the way. Washington state ranks sixth in the nation for production, while North America grows roughly 90 percent of the world’s blueberries with over 50 percent going straight to fresh produce markets.

Locally, home growers and gardeners are becoming more interested in nutritious edibles, with berries at the top of the list. Have you thought about growing blueberries? Here is some information to get you started.

The season’s first blueberries typically arrive in early July. PHOTO BY DIANE PADYS (

Preparing the soil

Blueberries generally enjoy full sunshine but will often tolerate partial shade, and prefer worked soil that drains well. When determining how many bushes to plant, most people want two to three bushes per person, though anyone with children should probably plant a few extra. (It’s hard to pass a ripening blueberry bush and resist eating them on the spot.)

When planting blueberries, site preparation is critical.  Blueberries like acidic soils, meaning soils with a low pH (generally in the 4.5 to 5.5 range) and a higher concentration of organic matter. A pH test can be obtained at certain nurseries and hardware stores, or you can have the pH tested through a standard soil test. Consult your local nursery or the WSU extension office for soil testing options.

To decrease your soil’s pH, thus increasing your soil’s organic matter, there are several options. When planting blueberries some experts recommend removing one-third to one-half of the soil and replacing with peat moss. For raised beds or growing blueberries in containers, a mix of half peat moss and half acid compost or soil mix should work well. To make your own soil mix, try 50 percent peat moss, 40 percent bark mulch, and 10 percent sand. Coco coir is regarded as a more sustainable alternative to peat moss but will require the addition of some nutrients.

Blueberries are acid lovers and will respond well to the addition of coffee grounds, wood ash, or Epsom salts.Watering the ground around the blueberries with a solution of one tablespoon of white vinegar to one gallon of water can also increase soil acidity.

In the ground

To plant blueberries, dig a hole larger than needed, remove the plant from the pot, and rough up the roots to encourage new root growth. Situate the plant about a half-inch above the regular soil grade and firm up the dirt around the root ball. Be sure to water well after planting.

Blueberries can be planted as close as two feet apart to form hedges or closer to four or five feet apart for more individual bush development.

Blueberry bushes are pollinated by bees.  Bumblebees and solitary bees are indigenous pollinators, though honeybees are utilized for commercial blueberry pollination. All blueberry plants have male and female organs on each flower, but many varieties are not self-pollinating and must have another blueberry variety within 100 feet for a healthy fruit set.

Once planting is complete, mulching is the next step to establishing healthy, happy plants. Mulch around your bushes with two to four inches of bark mulch, acid compost, sawdust, or grass clippings. Be sure to avoid using aromatic mulches such as cedar or redwood due to their growth inhibiting qualities. If grass clippings are used as a mulch, be sure to mix with bark or straw.  Remember to check mulch in the fall as it can also serve as safeguard from cold temperatures and winter damage.

Blueberries have a shallow, fibrous root system and with mulching weed pressures are reduced and soil moisture content can remain at a more consistent level. This shallow root system also means it is important to keep your plants well hydrated. Once the weather warms, watering two to three times per week will help keep plants healthy, vigorous, and producing quality fruit.

Wait to fertilize your bushes until after they are established. Fertilize twice per year in early and late spring.Acidic fertilizers can be used according to the directions on their label. Also high-nitrogen fertilizers such as blood meal and cottonseed meal will work well with blueberries. Avoid non-composted manures as this can shock and damage the plants. (Also, consider the thrifty option of occasionally scattering your coffee grounds as a top dressing around your plants.)

When planting young plants, it is a good idea to remove all or almost all blossoms. This encourages root growth over fruit production and will ultimately give you a better established plant and better fruit next year.
After the first year, pruning older branches that bear little to no fruit will result in the production of new wood that will produce larger, more abundant berries. Remove deadwood and non-vigorous twigs. Select for bright healthy-looking wood with longer lateral branches.

If you have transplanted plants, especially larger bushes, it is important to keep them well watered and also to prune them, hard.  Some people will cut off the entire top and let the plant start from scratch. This seems extreme to some, but pruning by one-half to two-thirds is probably a good idea.

Growing blueberries is a fun and tasty way to grow some food and create an attractive landscape. Contact your local gardening center to learn about the best varieties in your particular climate, as well as small-space growing (containers), traditional plants, or for something more unique (such as the brand new pink-berried ‘Pink Lemonade’). Many nursery centers also have blueberry workshops coming up, including Bakerview Nursery in Bellingham, which is holding a free workshop on Saturday, May 28 at 10 a.m. titled “Blueberry Magic.” Good luck and have fun!

Chris Elder lives with his family in Bellingham. He organizes Bellingham Urban Garden Syndicate (BUGS).

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18 Comments to “Blueberries: Tips for growing quality bushes”

  1. Gayle Ambler says:

    Thank you for this informative piece on growing Blueberries in Washington State. You have answered all my questions and with this knowledge I hope to grow some amazing Blueberries this year!!!!!! Thank you!!

  2. Jon says:

    Wood ash is higher in alkalinity which would not be good for blueberries? Thanks!

  3. We live in Lacey Wa about a 1/2 mile from the sound. Which blueberry bushes would you recommend for a fairly large blueberry?

  4. grizz299 says:

    I don’t know what zone you are in but Chandler gives the largest blueberry and has the advantage of a very long harvesting time. Darrow and Bonus are next, I particularly like the flavor of Bonus. Legacy, hardy blu, Elizabeth, Jersey and Brigetta are smaller but have great flavor.
    Truth is they are all good, just get two or more for cross pollination and check the blossoming season , get early, mid and late.

  5. Lilly Thompson says:

    @Charlie Casey Eastside Farm and Garden in the old Curtis Lumber has a wealth of information and lots of blueberries that grow here in stock. Great article, now I’m convinced I have to have some on my new property.

  6. Every so often I get an infestation of tiny worms in my berries. The plant is not affected. I spray once a year for pests, but I do it before flowers set because I care about the bees. I don’t like spraying the fruit either. It is wasted time looking through the berries for worms and wormholes. Do you have an answer for my problem? My email is correct.

  7. Anne Timlick says:

    I may have missed it in your helpful article, but WHEN would be the best time for
    planting blueberries (Kent, WA)

  8. Anne Timlick says:

    We’re looking for early, middle, late blueberries with flavor similar to wild huckleberry.
    Any suggestions?? We’re in Kent, WA

  9. Mark says:

    Planted a total of 9 blueberry plants. The first two I just planted in my soil, watered and they seemed fine for two weeks. The next seven I got from a nursery that told me to add peat moss, so I did about a 50-50 soil to peat moss. I also dug up the first two and added peat moss to them. Two weeks later all the plants leaves are turning a red-brown color. I also gave one plant to my sister with some peat moss and her plant leaves are doing the same thing. Her other blueberry plants are still green. Is this normal or what can I do? A nursery told me they only use 1/4 peat moss but I see you recommend up to 50%.

  10. Mikel Dohner says:

    I’m in the Bremerton area and would like to grow blueberries. I’m interested in plants that will produce medium to large berries that are juicy, sweet, with a mild tang. Any recommendations on plants that fit that berry profile and will grow well in the Bremerton are, would be appreciated.

    Thank you

  11. Tom says:

    I have just one blueberry bush that I have had for about five years. It has produced only a handful of berries over that time and has often looked sickly with its red-brown discoulouring of the leaves. This year I decided to put a bucket of water with a couple of cups of dissolved epsom salts around the base. The blueberry bush has never looked healthier or more prolific.

  12. Charol Riedel says:

    Can you use the mulch that Asplundi has chopped up from when they trim the trees around the power lines around your blueberries? I read that cedar shavings stunt their growth and I’m concerened that the mulch might have some cedar in it. Thanks.

  13. Rose leeson says:

    Just getting started with blueberries in the Deer Park- Spokane area. Would like to know if planting inside old tires would work? I have the option of planting straight in the ground in my garden as well. Just want to give them the best chance…

  14. Roger says:

    You say to use wood ashes on blue berries. Wood Ashes cause the soil acidity to rise on the PH scale, not lessen.

  15. Cindy says:

    When do we prune blueberries on the west coast of Washington State?

  16. I love blueberries! They are definitely one of my favourite forest fruits, they bring me back right to my childhood when we used to run around and pick them right from the bushes. However, blueberry bushes also have a ton of pests that like to snack on them, like aphids, scale, leafhoppers, a few kinds of moths and wasps (they love it as a treat). It’s hard to protect your bushes from all that, but there are a few natural solutions that are worth trying. Attracting ladybugs and birds into your garden is a good idea, because they are beneficial and feed on various pests. Preparing a spray with neem oil and water is also a good idea, it repels pests, but doesn’t damage your plants.

  17. Heather says:

    Can I use pine needles as mulch? I have read that they are good for adding acid to your soil.

  18. Eden says:

    Select a sunny, sheltered spot. While blueberries are tolerant of shade, better crops are obtained in the sun. At the same time, they should not be exposed to harsh, drying winds.

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