Blueberry Shrub Overview
|Official Plant Name||Vaccinium|
|Plant Type||Fruit / Shrub|
|Native Area||North America|
|Foliage||Lobed, deciduous leaves|
|Flowers||Small white or pale-pink flowers|
|When To Sow (Bare Root)||January, February, March, November, December|
|When To Sow (Pot Grown)||April, May, June|
|Harvesting Months||July, August, September|
|When To Prune||February, March|
Full Sun or Partial Shade
1 – 1.5M
1 – 1.5M
Moist but well-drained
Blueberries are delicious, healthy fruits that can be grown in many gardens as long as you provide the acidic conditions they need to thrive.
In this article, we will take a closer look at these berries, why growing them could be a great idea and where and how to grow blueberries in your garden.
What are Blueberries?
Blueberries grow on shrubs native to North America which are classified as Vaccinium, Cyanococcus section.
Commercial blueberries are usually of a highbush type. There are also lowbush wild types, which are not generally available in the UK.
In Europe, related species, bilberries, are sometimes described as blueberries. These are also within the Vaccinium genus – usually Vaccinium mytillus.
Sometimes referred to as European blueberries, bilberries are also called blaeberries, whortleberries, wimberries, whimberries or whinberries.
These are closely related to North American blueberries. But though they grow prolifically in the wild in acidic, nutrient-poor soils in temperate and subarctic regions they are challenging to grow – and so are not usually grown commercially or cultivated in gardens.
If you are thinking about growing blueberries in your garden – rather than foraging for bilberries in the wild – then you will be likely be looking for berry bushes which often come from hybrid cultivars, which were developed around the beginning of the 20th Century.
The plants you can buy for your garden typically derive from these North American types.
Why Grow Them in Your Garden?
Though blueberries are not a native berry bush, they can still be a very useful and interesting addition to your home-growing repertoire.
By growing these at home, you can take advantage of the healthy properties of these berries without having to buy them. In the long term, this can save you money and reduce the carbon emissions associated with food miles.
Most people are well aware that blueberries are considered a ‘super food’, crammed full of nutrients and antioxidants. Eating them brings a wide range of health benefits.
Since gardening is healthy too, growing blueberries at home can be a wonderful activity for your health.
Varieties to Consider
There are many named cultivars of blueberries to consider growing in your garden, including:
- Blue Crop
- Blue Ray
Where to Grow Blueberries
Blueberries require a sunny location to fruit well.
Though some can cope with dappled shade, most cultivars will require at least 6 hours of sunlight a day to achieve the best yields.
They will also do best in a relatively sheltered spot, shielded from strong winds and colder temperatures.
The most important thing to remember, however, when it comes to growing blueberries relates to their soil or growing medium requirements. Blueberries are very fussy when it comes to soil pH.
If you have a heavy clay soil, you should also grow blueberries in a raised bed or container, since blueberries like a light and moist yet free-draining soil.
When growing blueberries in pots, think carefully about where you place them, and also about their size and the growing medium they contain.
Make sure that the containers you choose are large enough to accommodate your plants. The container should be at least 30cm in diameter, ideally more like 50cm for a larger bush, and at least 45cm deep.
However, you should consider growing in larger containers, planters or raised beds filled with ericaceous compost so you can grow blueberries alongside companion plants. More on this below…
You should also make sure that any container allows for free-drainage to the roots of your blueberry bushes do not become waterlogged.
Once you have chosen a container or built your raised bed (remember that there are many reclaimed materials that you can use for this purpose), it is time to fill it.
You will need to create acidic conditions, so be sure to make or buy ericaceous compost to use in filling your raised bed or containers.
Buying one is usually easier, since it can be challenging to make sure you achieve the right pH when taking a DIY approach. Make sure you choose peat-free ericaceous compost if you want to do the right thing for people and planet.
When To Plant Blueberries
Blueberries can be purchased as bare-root plants in the autumn and planted during the dormant period. You can also buy pot grown blueberries from garden centres and nurseries all year round.
For best results, these should generally be planted out or repotted in the spring or autumn. Avoid planting out during particularly hot and dry periods to reduce plant stress.
Note that not all blueberries are self-fertile. Even those varieties which are self-fertile will generally produce better yields if grown with at least one companion.
You should usually, therefore, grow more than one blueberry plant, whether in pots or containers, raised beds, or in your acidic soil garden.
Once you have sourced your blueberries and chosen a site, prepared the soil if suitable, built raised beds or prepared containers with ericaceous compost – you should plant your blueberries at the same depth they were previously planted.
Firm the soil or potting mix around your plants. Take care not to create large air pockets but also make sure that you do not compact it too much.
Water in well, then mulch around your blueberry bushes with a fresh mulch of pine needles, oak or beech leaves leaf mould, conifer wood chip or bark chippings.
Companion Plants For Blueberries
Blueberries can of course be grown in pots on their own.
However, you can achieve better yields if you companion plant blueberries with other acid-loving plants which can attract pollinators during the spring when the bushes are in blossom, and attract other beneficial insects which help keep pest numbers down.
Some good choices are:
- Spring flowering Irises
- Grape hyacinth (Muscari)
- Heathers (Erica)
- Lithodora diffusa
- Papaver cambricum
- Red campion (Silene dioica – can cope with a variety of soil pH conditions)
- Trillium erectum
Blueberries can also be grown alongside other berry bushes which like acidic conditions, like cranberries, for example.
They also look good when planted alongside conifers, small Acers and/or holly.
Note however that blueberries have shallow roots, so companions should be placed outside the area of their root zone.
Around the sunny side of blueberries, you can also consider planting strawberries (which should be fine at a pH of around 5.5) and aromatic herbs like thyme and rosemary. These are good companion plants which should be able to tolerate the acidic conditions.
Caring For Blueberries
As long as you meet the acidic conditions required, blueberries can be relatively easy and trouble-free to grow.
Remember that blueberries grown in containers will need to be watered more frequently than those grown in the ground.
Tap water can reduce acidity, so be sure to always use rainwater when watering your blueberry plants.
Blueberries can suffer if they are over-fertilised, especially if there is excess nitrogen. However, it is important to make sure that you do consider the fertility needs of your blueberries over time, especially if growing in pots or containers.
Make sure that you replenish mulch every spring with ericaceous organic matter.
You should also feed blueberries grown in pots or containers with an ericaceous liquid feed or vinegar solution 2-3 times during the growing season.
When growing blueberries in pots, you should also scrape out and replenish the top 1/3 of the ericaceous growing medium every 2-3 years.
These steps not only ensure fertility over time, they also help to keep the pH at the right level.
You will not need to prune blueberries much, if at all, during the first couple of years.
After this, however, you should prune to maintain size and shape and keep plants healthy in late February or March each year.
Remove any dead, damaged or diseased material. Remove around a quarter of the oldest thickest stems at the base of a mature plant, or prune back to a younger strong shoot that is low down on the branch.
Remove twiggy growth at the ends of branches which fruited the previous year, cutting back to a low, upward-facing, strong bud or branch.
Blueberries do not usually have a lot of pest issues. However, birds can be an issue, and may eat all the berries before you get the opportunity.
If birds are a problem, you can consider protecting your blueberries with bird netting, or in fruit cages, polytunnels or other covering structures.
Companion planting should help you deal with aphids and other pests which can sometimes plague berry bushes.
Companion plants should attract predatory insects to keep their numbers down.
If your blueberry bushes are happy and healthy and everything has gone as it should, you should be able to harvest your blueberries from mid-summer onwards.
The berries do not all ripen at the same time so you will have to return several times to harvest as they ripen. When ready to pick, they will have turned from green to a deep blue hue.
Blueberries can be eaten raw, and also used in making pies, tarts, and a range of preserves.
The leaves of the blueberry bush can also be dried and used alongside dried fruit to make tea, and the dried berries can also be used like raisins.
Hopefully you should find no difficulty in making full use of the blueberries that you grow.
A permaculture garden designer, sustainability consultant and freelance writer, Elizabeth works as an advocate for positive change. She aims to inspire others to reconnect with nature and live in a more eco-friendly way. She also tries to practice what she preaches as she tends her own forest garden, polyculture beds and polytunnel. See her personal website here.