Northern highbush blueberries-Vaccinium corymbosum
Northern highbush blueberries-Vaccinium corymbosum © Aconcagua

Blueberries: Gems in the Garden

If you’ve dreamed about being able to go into your garden and collect handfuls of fresh, homegrown blueberries to use in pancakes and muffins or just to snack on, now’s the time to stop dreaming and plant a few blueberry bushes. The sooner you plant the shrubs, the sooner you’ll be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor. A perennial shrub, blueberries are part of the Azalea family.

Zones: Northern highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum): zones 5-8; rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium ashei): zones 8-10.

Type: Fruit shrub. Deciduous or evergreen, depending on type.

Light Needs: Full to part sun.

Size: 2-10 feet.

Spacing: Plant 5 feet apart; dwarf varieties can be planted in containers.

Propagation: Softwood cuttings. 

Special Features: Acidic soil (pH 4-5), spring flowers, attractive fall foliage, edible fruit.

GoGardenGo Notes: Plant more than one type to ensure cross-pollination. Apply fertilizer about a month after planting, not when you plant the shrub. 

Types of Blueberry Bushes 

There are two main types of blueberry bushes, differentiated by the zones they can thrive in:

vaccinium-corymbosum-aaNorthern Highbush Blueberries                                   © mullica

Northern highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) are the main family of

blueberries and are a derivative from American wild blueberries. These bushes are suitable for zones 5-8. 


vaccinium_ashei-aRabbiteye Blueberries                                                 © KENPEI

Rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium ashei) can tolerate drier conditions and less acidic soils than Highbush blueberries. Rabbiteye blueberries are suitable for zones 8-10.


Blueberry bushes need three to four years to become an established producer, but by the time the bush is five or six years old, it can bear as much as five pounds of fruit per tree. The ripening season varies from one variety to the next, but most blueberry bushes produce fruit in mid- to late summer.


Blueberry Growing Conditions

There are two main things you need to know about blueberry bushes: they require acidic soil and a sunny location. In order to maintain proper soil pH (and thereby prevent the acidic soil from affecting other plants), GoGardenGo suggests planting your blueberry bushes in containers or – if you must plant them in the ground – inside a sunken tub or other container. The soil’s pH should be between 4 and 5, so you will probably need to work four to six inches of acid peat or used coffee grounds into the soil to lower the pH. You can also use granular sulfur; one pound per 50 feet lowers the soil pH by one point. If you plant the bush directly in the soil and don’t use a sunken container, check the pH level periodically to ensure it remains acidic.

On average, these perennials need one inch of water per week. Adding peat moss or mulch to the planting site will help the blueberry bush retain moisture. Do not let the bushes dry out between watering.


Purchasing Blueberry Plants

Know your garden’s soil properties and available planting space before you buy a blueberry bush. Different cultivars have different requirements, so be sure to read the label on the plant. Young plants are the best, and these can be either container-grown (available year-round) or bare-root (available in early spring and late fall).


Planting Blueberry Bushes

The blueberry bush is a versatile fruit bush, as it makes an ideal container plant or it can be planted in open ground. It has a shallow root system, which makes planting easy. The best time to plant is in the spring.

If you plan to grow your blueberry bush in a container, choose a dwarf variety such as Sunshine Blue, Top Hat, Patriot, or Little Giant. Choose a pot that is at least 12 inches in circumference and a high-acidity potting mix, such as one that is formulated for azaleas. The blueberry bush should be planted so the root ball is just four inches below the container rim, and the soil should just cover the top of the root ball.

To plant a blueberry bush in the ground, dig a hole that is only slightly larger than the root system. The soil should only go as high as the soil mark on container-grown plants, and should just cover the roots of bare-root stock. If you are planting several bushes, they must be spaced 5 feet apart to allow for future growth.


Blueberry Bush Propagation

The best way to propagate blueberry bush is by softwood cuttings. Cuttings from a blueberry bush should be 4 to 6 inches long and cut just above a leaf joint.


Pruning of Blueberry Bushes

Blueberry bushes flower and fruit on wood that is two to three years old. GoGardenGo recommends only pruning back weak shoots during the first two or three years of growth. After that period, the oldest wood should be cut back to about one inch above the soil.


Blueberry Bush Diseases and Pests

Blueberry plants can be affected by several diseases and pests. Powdery mildew (Microspaera vaccinii) is a common fungus that emerges in midsummer as discolored spots and a white, powdery growth on leaves. Botrytis is another minor fungal disease that presents as brown leaves and blossoms. Both of these diseases can be treated with a fungicide; remove any affected foliage and fruit.

Mummy berry (Monilinia vaccinii-corymbosi) is a fruit-damaging fungal disease that affects blueberries. You can avoid introducing this disease into your blueberry patch by either planting dormant, bare-root plants or clean off the soil surface of potted plants before planting. If your plants are affected, treat them with a fungicide and dispose of any affected berries or foliage.

Blueberries can be affected by pests like tip borers and fruitworms. Blueberry tip borers affect the stems of the bushes and can prevent the plant from producing fruit. If you see borer holes, prune and destroy the affected stems. Fruitworms damage the fruit and render it inedible; to prevent fruitworms from taking over your crop, spray your blueberry bushes with an insecticide in the early spring.


GoGardenGo Blueberry Bush Tips:

  • We recommend purchasing blueberries and other fruit plants from specialty fruit nurseries. These nurseries can help you choose the “right” cultivar and their stock is usually certified disease-free.
  • A drip irrigation system is an ideal way to water blueberry bushes, especially container-grown ones, as it keeps the root system well-watered without leading to root rot.
  • Each spring, apply a mix of ammonium sulfate (1 ounce per square yard), bone meal (3 ounces per square yard), and potassium sulfate (1 ounce per square yard).


Species of Blueberry Bushes

 Bog Blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) – two-foot-tall shrub with purple flowers. Bears fruit through the summer and loses its leaves in the fall.

Rabbit-eye Blueberries (Vaccinium ashei) – easy-to-grow species that is drought- and heat-tolerant. Thrives in the southeastern United States.

Oval-leaf Blueberry (Vaccinium ovalifolium) – identified by its pink, bell-shaped flowers. Grows mainly in the northwestern United States (Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska), plus Michigan.

Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) – produces clusters of large fruit. This species grows well in the northeast United States, but needs to be protected from winter temperatures that fall below -25 degrees Fahrenheit.

New Jersey Blueberry (Vaccinium caesariense) – prominent in New Jersey, but also grows in other East Coast states. Produces white flowers in May and June, and fruits in mid-July into August.

Evergreen Blueberry (Vaccinium darrowii) – native to the pine forests of the southeastern United States. In addition to its fruit production, this species is used as an ornamental shrub because of its evergreen properties.

Alaska blueberry (Vaccinium alaskaense) – shade-tolerant blueberry that grows from Alaska south to the northwest portion of Oregon.

Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) – container-suitable blueberry that produces large blueberries (up to ½ inch in diameter). Leaves turn reddish bronze in the fall.

Shiny Blueberry (Vaccinium myrsinites) – evergreen shrub that has pink and white urn-shaped flowers. Hardy to zones 7-10.

Cascade Blueberry (Vaccinium deliciosum) – also called Cascade bilberry, this shrub has pink, urn-shaped flowers that produce tasty blueberries.

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