How to grow blueberries even when they don’t like your soil

Years ago I had a dream of growing my own blueberries.  It is common knowledge that blueberries aren’t easy to grow here in our part of the Midwest, since our soil tends to be alkaline, and blueberries are a bit on the fussy side, desiring an acid soil. They grow wonderfully, I hear, in Michigan, and they grow wild in Maine . . . and I’m sure there are other parts of the world where growing them is easy as falling off the proverbial log.

Gooseberry bushes grow wild here; raspberry brambles grow like weeds; blackberry brambles are no trick to grow, either,  but I don’t know a single person here in our area who has succeeded at growing blueberry bushes. Not one person.

Well, not until (ahem) now.  Our blueberry bushes are thriving.  Not that it has been an easy thing to figure out how to get them to that point, oh no.

When we were in New Zealand a couple of years ago, we picked blueberries at a blueberry farm where the bushes were nearly as tall as me, and the blueberries fell off the bushes by the handful when we touched them, almost like magic. Of course New Zealand is a magical and wondrous gardener’s dream land, so that’s not surprising. It was heavenly.  Heaven will be full of berries, I’m sure of it, of all colours and textures.  And there will be large white pitchers of cream, and you’ll be able to slosh the cream on your bowl of berries any time, day or night, with scant regard to calorie or fat content. Sigh.

“This is what I want,” I said to my husband through blue-stained lips and teeth, once I could catch my breath.  “Let’s move to New Zealand, or else please help me grow a blueberry patch like this one.”

Oh, these delightful morsels of goodness are not easy to grow here in Nebraska!

Oh, these delightful morsels of goodness are not easy to grow here in Nebraska!

“We can’t move to New Zealand,” my husband said.

Well, he was right.  We couldn’t then, and we certainly can’t now, because we now have two adorable grandchildren here in the states to love on. Not to mention a job. And a bajillion critters to take care of.

“So that means you’ll help me with the blueberries?” I asked, pushing my advantage.

My good husband knows that my list of wants is a very long one.  He turned to look at me. The love light was not in his eyes, Gentle Reader.  “Thirty plants ought to be enough to keep you in blueberries in a few years,” he said dryly, reaching down to rub an imaginary ache in his lower back, and giving me the look.  At least I think it was an imaginary ache.

You know that look.  The “Don’t ask me to dig more holes for blueberry bushes ever again” look.  The “For Pete’s sake, woman, thirty blueberry plants is quite enough” look.  Yeah, that one.  (Whatever.)

The farm where we were standing had several hundred blueberry bushes, and the six of us picked and picked until our buckets were full, and we ate quite a few of those warm berries, too, and the entire time I was just imagining being able to do this in our own yard, in a few years. I was in a dizzy fog of longing and blueberry-infused delight. You know that place, don’t you?

When I was a little girl, my dad planted a couple of blueberry bushes next to our house.  I had a second story bedroom, and I could see them from my window. When I could see that those berries were starting to turn blue, I’d slip down ever so quietly, and . . . . well, I won’t tell you what I did. You can imagine it. It was a selfish thing to do, but little girls can be selfish, can they not?

The songbirds got blamed, in any case, and songbirds are forgiven of anything.

My dad always puzzled aloud about how the birds knew just the moment when the berries were ripe.  Did he suspect that it wasn’t the birds, but . . . little me . . . who was harvesting the few berries that those bushes produced?

Probably. I don’t know. Maybe not.  Possibly. I never said a word about it, obviously.  But I also never forgot the taste of those few berries I ate every summer.

Here's my dad and his great-granddaughter (and my granddaughter!) Anya picking a few blueberries

Here’s my dad picking blueberries at our place with his great-granddaughter (and my granddaughter!) Anya.

Which is probably why I’ve worked so hard to grow my own. Also, perhaps, because so many people have told me that it can’t be done.  I don’t know why they sets me off so much, but it does. If somebody tells me that I can’t do something, I feel my eyes–automatically– narrowing, and my shoulders squaring and my fists clenching with resolve.  And then I go prove that person wrong. Or at least, I try my best to do so. Silly.

So I did a little studying, and a little research, and a little experimentation, and a bit of praying (doesn’t hurt to have The Big Guy on your side) and I planted my blueberry plants accordingly. My good (aforementioned) husband and son Timothy helped me by digging the holes, and daughter Amalia has been a willing helper in watering and fertilizing them.  That was three years ago. Guess what, Gentle Readers?

We had a bumper crop of blueberries this year.  Take a gander.

Yes! We grew these--amazing, no?

Yes! We grew these–amazing, no?

So I’ve put together my (humble, yet curiously effective) recommendations of how to grow blueberry bushes.

The first thing you must know is that blueberry bushes prefer acid soil, and our soil here in Nebraska is alkaline. Yours may be, too. So the trick is to change your soil, and that takes a bit of effort.  Initially I found this information from a blueberry farm in Kansas that I bought my first shipment of bushes from. With the purchase of a few bushes, they’d send you their growing instructions, which (of course) I’ve misplaced.

This blueberry bush is loaded with blossoms. In a few weeks, they'll be berries and ready to pick!

This blueberry bush is loaded with blossoms. In a few weeks, they’ll be berries and ready to pick!

Good thing I remember them clearly.  But, no worries, I’ve put together a compilation of everything I’ve learned about growing blueberries successfully in Nebraska, or any area where the soil is alkaline, rather than acid.

First, you need to buy bales of peat moss (we figured that it took one bale of peat moss to plant two bushes, with a little left over) and some fertilizer for acid-loving plants. You can buy both those things from your local farm store.

Here’s how to plant your blueberry bushes:

  1. Order blueberry bushes suited for your area (we bought several high bush varieties, and they came bare-root and dormant).
  2. Dig a hole for each one, approximately 2′ deep and 2′ wide, about 5′ apart and in rows 8′ apart.  (This spacing will allow for plenty of growth of the bushes, and for mowing between the rows).
  3. Empty the peat moss into a deep wheelbarrow, or a very large bin or container.  Add water and stir until the peat moss is a thick, wet slurry.  Fill each hole with the now-sloppy peat moss. (Hint: do not attempt this on a windy day. The dry peat moss is very light and it will blow in your face and your nose and over to your neighbor’s place where it will do no good to anybody, and it may even annoy your neighbor).
  4. Plant the bushes in the peat moss, spreading the roots out as much as possible.
  5. Water each bush thoroughly.
  6. Put down several inches of mulch in a ring of at least 3 feet in diameter around each bush.  We have used many things for mulch–pine needles (helps encourage an acid soil), wood chips, straw, or whatever has been available.
This bush has a nice crop of berries on it.

This bush has a nice crop of berries on it.

That’s the hard part.  Now you have a few orderly rows, or if you’re just putting in a few bushes, you have a few lovely bushes planted.  Now comes the maintenance phase.  If you neglect this basic maintenance, your bushes won’t fare so well, and you won’t be eating fistfuls of blueberries in a few years, so don’t neglect it!

Here’s how you maintain your blueberry bushes:

  1. Water:  Give your bushes one to two inches of water once (or even twice) a week during the growing season.  It is nearly impossible to over-water blueberry bushes, as they are very thirsty plants. Drip tape is an ideal thing to use here, especially if you put down landscape cloth for mulch.
  2. Fertilizer: Once a month during the growing season, apply fertilizer for acid-loving plants at the rate of 1 Tablespoon dissolved in a gallon of water.  If the leaves seem to be extra small or the plant appears less than thrifty (you’ll soon note when the plants seem to be thriving, and when they look like they need a little extra care) do a second application of fertilizer that month.
  3. Weeds: Keep the area within 3 feet of your blueberry bushes free of weeds, so there is absolutely no competition for nutrients and water.  I tired of weeding and after a couple of years wised up and put landscape fabric down and have never looked back.
Don't my blueberry bushes look happy here, surrounded by black landscape cloth and some woodchips?

Don’t my blueberry bushes look happy here, surrounded by black landscape cloth and some woodchips? This is a healthy, happy blueberry bush.

So there you go!

Yes, Virginia, you CAN grow blueberry bushes, even if your soil is less than ideal for them, and even if you’ve tried and have failed in years past.  And in just a few years, you can enjoy blueberries in your pancakes and your muffins and in your bread and by the handful and in your fruit smoothies and in your granola and then–oh boy–you’re gonna thank me . . .

I’m participating today in The Prairie Homestead’s weekly Homestead Barn Hop, so be sure to pop over there for lots more great homesteading tips!

Barn-Hop

 

 

40 thoughts on “How to grow blueberries even when they don’t like your soil

  1. Anita-Clare Field

    What a wonderful read on a Monday lunchtime, It’s an absolute belter. We love blueberries in this house and the sooner we have our garden restyled then the sooner we can get going 🙂 Please send your husband across the pond. I will return him with goodies from the UK ? Deal?

  2. Tamala

    I can’t wait until I have my own garden… I mean a huge one like you seem to have. Like you, I have lots and lots of wants for this lifetime, with one of them being a BIG garden… with fruits, herbs, and veggies. So three years huh? Does it normally take that long to grow “stuff” or are blueberries an anomaly? Didn’t realize it took a such a long time… I thought maybe six months? But again, I’m a city girl and know absolutely nothing about farming/gardening aside for tending to my mom’s rose garden which are seasonal. Anyhoot, congrats on such an accomplishment. Yummy! Are you going to sell them too?

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Tamala,
      Perennial (the kinds of plants that come back year after year) plants take two or three years to produce, but herbs and flowers and “annual” plants (the kinds that produce the first year and then die) like lettuces, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, etc., produce the first year. Take it one step at a time and you’ll have lots to eat and lots to share, too! 🙂 About selling: if (and when!) we have more berries than we can use, we’ll sell them at market. 🙂

  3. Stacy

    Love blueberries! My mom’s husband has 10 bushes on his property and my, how they produce. In an especially good year they pick enough berries to completely fill a large freezer, allow me to pick to my heart’s content, and still give to friends and neighbors before finally uncovering them and letting the birds have at them.

    Mom says it’s going to be a bumper crop this year, but her husband isn’t feeling like covering them so it will be a race to beat the birds. I’m going on two trips this month so I doubt I will get to pick many.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Stacy,
      That’s a LOT of blueberries! I’ve got to ask, where do you all live? Not in the Midwest, I’m assuming!

  4. Charlotte Henley Babb

    I love blueberries. I might even give this a try, though there is little sunshine in my yard due to oak trees, and the red clay soil might be a problem. But, I don’t blame you a bit for sneaking a blueberries. I have a quart in my frig from the farmer’s market on Saturday.

  5. Cher

    Hi Amy, what a great post, I so love your humour! I is a good job we did not grow up together – we would have caused innocent havoc! LOL. I have a water filter system that gives me both Alkaline and acid water, so i use the acid water for my blueberries and feed with a little liquid fertilizer from my tiger worms, they seem to love it – and I love them 🙂

    Cher x

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Oh, Cher, that sounds brilliant! Is your soil naturally acidic, then, there in your area of France?

  6. Danny

    “..thirty blueberry plants is quite enough” no way, you can never have enough blueberries. I just started building a vegetable garden with my daughters on the weekend, we were thinking of growing berries. Thanks for showing how.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Sure, Danny! 30 blueberry plants this year wasn’t enough, but if they actually grow to be as tall as me (as I hope!) then that should be enough blueberries to satisfy even ME. 🙂

  7. Shawn

    I am from the beloved state of Michigan and blueberries grow beautifully there. They are plump morsals of goodness. I love blueberries in pancakes, muffins, and off the bush just like you. There really isn’t any way that I don’t like blueberries.

  8. Francene Stanley

    Just shows what you can do if you put your mind to it. I wish you every continued success. I don’t want to dampen your spirits, but I didn’t have much luck after the forth year. Of course, you’re much more dillegent than I am. The one bush I had withered and died last year. Lily of the valley bloomed well in its place this spring. Sigh. Blueberries are SO delicious.

  9. Sabrina Sumsion

    I love this! We’re putting an offer on a house today that has almost 2 acres. There’s a pine tree line on the north side and I plan to utilize that soil to try to get some blueberries to do well. Thanks for the tips. I’ll be sure to use them!

  10. nicole

    congratulations !!! I am just at the very beginning of my little farm and a blueberry patch is one of my big dreams too !!! 🙂

  11. rose/cookinmom

    Hello Amy, just wanted to send this your way…something that was just put out on Paul (BTE) prunning blueberry bushes. He shows how he opens up the bush however parts are not that great. I just got a pile of pine woodchips dumped, which blueberries absolutely love! Anyways, here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watchv=UPAVaF738jI
    Blessings

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Oh, Rose, I just found this comment. Thanks for sending it my way. I’m going to watch the video to see what Paul does with blueberries. I’m going to be mulching and fertilizing mine TODAY. Thanks again for sending this my way. You are MY LINK to Paul! 🙂 I appreciate you!

    2. dramamamafive Post author

      Rose, could you do me a BIG favor and try to re-send that link? It didn’t come up when I clicked on it. (“Link not found”) Alas.

      1. rose/cookinmom

        You might be better off and go to youtube and type in L2Survive and look at all his videos. One of the most recent is “how to prune blueberries”. It’s hard to see how he pruns but he thins it out and anything crossing he gets rid of. He thins the bottom of the bush as well. Here’s one more try https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPAVaF738jI
        Enjoy the beautiful colors of spring!

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  13. Melissa

    So we just moved to a rural area of Nebraska, about an hour away from any decent shopping and I wanted to see if I could plant Blueberries out here successfully. Your blog was the first thing that came up when I hit Google on the subject. (congrats!)When I started reading your blog, I got the giggles! So much in common! I had to leave you a comment and say Thank You for the Blueberry tips! I’m excited to try them! And excited to come back and read more of your posts.

    PS I’m glad Nelly survived!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Hey Melissa! I’m curious now in WHICH rural area of Nebraska you live? Close at all to my rural area? I’m glad the blueberry post was helpful to you. It is possible to raise blueberries here, but not easy. If you want easy, quick, native berries–grow blackberries or raspberries. They are so much easier to raise than blueberries here!

      1. Melissa

        We’re on the edge of Rising City (about 25 minutes from Columbus). I keep snooping your pictures to see if I can tell what area you’re in, if anything looks familiar (no luck hahaha)

        When we moved here there’s actually a gorgeous blackberry “bush…?” It’s grown intertwined with a tree and hangs over the side yard like a willow tree…and tastes great! I just LOVE blueberries, and they’re one of the few lower carb fruits I can eat on a low carb diet. I think I’m going to wait until I have a season or two of easier to grow food for this area then give it a go, but I’m determined!! 🙂

        1. dramamamafive Post author

          Well, Melissa, you definitely need determination to raise blueberries in Nebraska, but it can be done! Raspberries and blackberries are definitely easier to grow here, though!

  14. Bonny

    Very helpful post! Thanks for sharing your experience and the amazing evidence of successful blueberries! I have a couple bushes that are nearly 2 years old and they are alive and seem happy, but haven’t gotten any taller, and of course, the crows ate the berries. Grrr! I’m going to add more plants, and be more diligent about fertilizing and watering. I’m in CA and the drought has made keeping up with watering really difficult. You’ve inspired me to give them more attention 🙂

  15. Beth Hamburger

    Your post encouraged me to try blueberries. I live in SD. I planted three blueberries bushes last summer. What do I do this spring for them?

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Beth,
      Follow the directions in my post. They can’t be overwatered, basically. And they need the proper fertilizer at least once a month during the growing season. Keep the weeds away, and Good luck! 🙂

  16. Dan

    Thank you so much for this post. We live just outside London, England, and have thick clay alkaline soil. I have four existing Blueberry plants in containers. Each is two years old and two of them are not doing well – turned brown and lost all of there leaves in summer despite growing in ericaceous compost and being fertilised with an azalea, rhododendrons fertiliser. I’ve bought the “ingredients” that you listed, when would be the best time to transplant into the ground? I would assume the two that are doing well should be left to early winter when they’re dormant but can I do the two that are pretty much bare bark now!? Thanks again

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Dan, good question! If you planted them on a cool, rainy day, now would be a fine time to do it. They would have more time to develop a healthy, strong root system before winter sets in. That’s what i would do, in any case. Then water them often, until it freezes. GOOD LUCK!

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