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It seems so contradictory to cut off branches in order to get more fruit, but that's exactly what we need to do with our fruit trees, especially blueberry plants. Pruning blueberries is slightly different than pruning fruit trees, though some of the principals remain the same.
I can't help but think of this verse every time I prune any of our plants. I'm always amazed at how gardening brings to mind so many of the scriptures.
He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. John 15:2
Blueberries are one of my favorite fruits. They're sweet and juicy on the tongue, freeze better than any other berry, dehydrate well, and can even be grown in a container or pot. Plus, they turn things purple (one of my high school's colors), what's not to love?
Almost anyone can grow blueberries, even if all you have is a patio or yard, because blueberries can be kept compact and one mature bush will produce a good amount of berries. Blueberries make a gorgeous addition to your flower beds as they have dainty white blossoms in spring and in the fall, their leaves turn a pretty red before falling.
Blueberries are a fairly slow growing plant. If your plant is only a year or two year old, I wouldn't prune it yet, just let it grow and establish its root system. Our bushes are going on five years old and in need of some pruning.
Blueberries are best pruned in the late winter where I live. You want to prune them when the fruit buds are showing, for us, that happens to be mid-January. I also was out for a run and happened upon my wonderful neighbor pruning her blueberries. She's an organic farmer who has served on the board for Organic Tilth, making her my go to when I have gardening questions. She gave me a quick pruning lesson and I'm passing it along to you guys, cuz us homesteading peeps have to stick together.
Next, look at the bush. You want the middle of the bush to have good circulation and if it's too compact the berries in the center won't receive much light and won't ripen well. Look for branches in the middle that don't have any or very much new growth. Those will be the ones you want to remove. Be sure and cut the branch off down to the very base of the bush. This will encourage healthy new growth.
Next, look for branches that don't have any new fruit buds. There's no point in keeping branches that aren't going to be producing any fruit. Each fruit bud will produce a good handful of berries, so if a branch has several, that's a decent amount of berries.
Look at branches that grow long and leggy with no branches until the end. It's best to cut these as they're not producing fruit along the length of the branch, just the end. Your goal is to keep the branches with lots of new red growth and fruit buds.
As your blueberry bush grows, you'll also want to cut off any small shoots coming up at the very base of the plant to encourage upright growth. It's not much fun to hunch over the whole time you're picking berries. Or maybe that's a sign I'm starting to get old… nah.
After you've went through and pruned your blueberry plant, you'll want to add some new mulch and fertilizer. Blueberries are one of the most acid loving plants around. In fact, our soils is about a 5.5 on the ph scale and it's not quite acidic enough for the blueberries. My neighbor adds sulfur to her soil.
I've found various reports on the acidity of used coffee grounds. Some articles say it's only about a 5 while others say it's more. Regardless of how acidic it is, it's excellent food for your bush and something most of us have on hand. I put a good layer of this around the base of my blueberry bushes, making sure to mix it up so it doesn't grow mold. Here is my article on 4 tips for using coffee grounds in the garden.
Next goes on a good layer of manure. Because this layer is going on top of last year's layer of mulch, I don't worry if it's a little bit hot because it won't be hitting the roots right away. After I've added my manure I put on a 5 to 6 inch layer of sawdust. Cedar is a good choice for blueberries (but not all plants), fir, maple, and pine will work as well. Whatever you can get your hands on basically.
The reason we mulch so heavily here is threefold.
Do you have blueberries or plan on putting some in?
Here's some books for further reading and growing fruit.
Check out our how to prune raspberries video!
Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.