Saturday, April 4, 2015

How to Plant Blueberries

Blueberries have a reputation for being somewhat troublesome plants. The major issue is that they like acidic conditions and most of us do not have naturally acidic soil. No worries! If you plant blueberries correctly, you can give them exactly what they need and pave the way for bountiful harvests in the future. 

My go-to book for all things fruit is the The Holistic Orchard According to the author, Michael Phillips, the first thing you have to do is dig a proper hole.
Hole-y cow!

As usual when you are planting fruit, you're going to dig a much larger hole than you probably think is necessary. This hole is about 3 feet across and 12 inches deep. We currently have four northern highbush-type blueberries ("Earliblue", "Bluecrop", "Blueray", and "Jersey" varieties) and have spaced them out five feet apart in a sunny area adjacent to our tree crop plantings.

Now comes the fun part. And by fun part, I mean the really tedious but important part. Instead of adding back only the soil you just dug out, you are going to fill in the hole with materials that are going to nudge the pH of your soil in the acidic direction. Phillips recommends that you use 50% peat moss, 40% native soil, and 10% compost for a proper planting mixture.

A note about peat moss: the peat moss that you buy at a garden center is very dry and compressed.  It is better to moisten it ahead of time.

My peat moss has sprung a leak! 

Take the bale of peat moss and cut a hole in the top of the plastic. You can stick a hose down inside and fill the bale with water. It will hold A LOT of water. Let it sit for a couple of days to get thoroughly moistened.

We were a bit perplexed as to the best way to insure that we got the proper amounts of soil, peat moss, and compost mixed throughout the planting hole. We ended up using a 5 gallon bucket as a measuring device and filled it up with the correct proportions of each of the ingredients. It took a long time, but it was a good way of mixing everything.

As you fill in your planting hole, you also need to sprinkle in some soil amendments. Every blueberry bush received 1 cup of rock phosphate, 1 cup of elemental sulfur, and 2 cups of greensand. The rock phosphate stimulates root growth and the greensand and sulfur will help with the iron uptake/pH concerns.

Greensand, elemental sulfur, and rock phosphate

We layered in buckets of the soil mixture, sprinkled in the amendments, and gently tucked in each plant.

This freshly planted blueberry was 2 years old when we purchased it.
It began bearing fruit the next year.

After we finished this project, I needed to be gently tucked into bed. Alas, my job was not done. Blueberries are one of those plants that need consistent moisture. Mulch will help keep moisture in the soil and also keep the weeds back.


We used a mix of shredded tree branches and grapevines for mulch at the time. Now I generally use the material I clean out of the duck and chicken houses (manure + pine shavings/pellets) as mulch.  
A month after planting you need to fertilize the blueberries with an organic fertilizer for acidic plants and repeat that again in the fall. In subsequent years, fertilize in the fall only. Blueberries need a minimal amount of pruning to remove old branches as they age. Easy peasy! 

A year after planting we started getting blueberries! (Shown with raspberries)

Blueberries in a Permaculture Guild: 
Right now our blueberries are not integrated into any other plantings, but I have been doing some research on possible guild plants that would work in conjunction with blueberries, contributing nutrients and assisting pollinators. The main concern seems to be the fact that blueberries have a very shallow root system and do not like it disturbed. Here are three discussions (Page 1, Page 2, Page 3) about plant pairings with blueberries. Lots of food for thought here. 

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