blueberry growing and irrigation, a step by step guide for future growers

Blueberries—Growing, Irrigation, and More

Blueberries have a significant tradition in our eating culture—13, 000 years of continuous exploitation. Long before the colonization of North America, the indigenous tribes of what is now present-day Canada included blueberries in their regular diet.

But it’s not just North America—this highly nutritious and healthy fruit is widespread across the entire globe, making blueberry farming very popular.

There are several types of blueberries, but in this article, we’ll tackle the process of highbush blueberry cultivation because it’s the most commonly grown type around the world. We’ll show you how to plant, grow, and irrigate this superfood to ensure quality yields and maximize your profits.

Why grow blueberries?

Blueberries are widely used in diets all over the world and form a part of many delicious recipes, such as the traditional blueberry pie.

Other than the sweet taste, blueberries also offer numerous health benefits. They are considered to be rich in potassium, manganese, vitamin C, vitamin K, and antioxidants that protect your body from free radicals and further cell damage. That said, blueberries are great allies in reducing cholesterol, blood pressure, risk of heart disease, and muscle damage.

Additionally, blueberries can be very profitable if cultivated correctly. Once the bushes reach maturity, an acre of blueberries can generate between $25,000 and $100,000 in a year if you sell them at $5 a pound.

You should also know that blueberries require specific conditions to grow properly, but little effort, as the process isn’t complicated. That makes this fruit suitable for beginner growers.

Step 1: Planting blueberries

To make the most out of your blueberry bush, you need to know when, where and how to plant it.

    • When? Blueberry bushes can be planted at any time of the year, unless the temperature is too low. However, the preferred time is typically early to mid spring or late fall.
    • Where? Choose a well-drained spot that’s far from any tall trees because blueberries need a lot of sunlight and the trees might block it. Close proximity to other plants with bigger root systems may also mean your blueberry bush won’t receive enough water or nutrients. This plant doesn’t like wind, so make sure the planting spot is well-sheltered.
  • How? Blueberries need acidic soil, with pH ideally between 4.0 and 5.0. Adding peat moss into the soil will help you maintain it optimal for the plants. If you can’t provide this kind of soil, patio containers or raised beds can work too. It’s recommended to test your soil once a year to ensure pH levels are correct and make the right decisions about fertilizers. Once you’ve made sure the soil is ready for the plants, you can place them into holes, with the root ball up to half an inch below the surface. The plants should be placed around 2 feet apart for hedgerows, or 6 feet for individual bushes and 8-10 feet between rows.
Quick tip: Add an organic soil acidifier or sulfur chips to decrease the soil pH a few months before planting blueberries. This will help you make the soil perfect for planting the fruit.

Step 2: Watering blueberries

Blueberries don’t like dry soil because their roots don’t have root hairs. To reduce soil moisture fluctuations, you can add mulch such as:

  • Pine needles
  • Rotted sawdust
  • Peat moss
  • Bark chippings
  • Leaf mold

These will help keep the soil moisture and acidity on the right level.

Water the blueberry bushes at least once a week with plenty of water, during the day, but make sure the soil doesn’t become soggy.

Around 65 gallons of water per 100 square feet is enough. Maintaining the balance will reward you with perfect fruit, but too much water can lead to bland crops or root rotting, while underwatered plants will give you smaller berries. Note that you’ll need to water blueberries more during fruit ripening to ensure the best product: the plant will need around four inches of water per week, and make sure the soil is wet to at least one inch of depth.

The quality of water is another essential element in the production of blueberries; hard water has a fair amount of magnesium and calcium that can raise the pH levels in the soil, so the careful monitoring of water quality should be part of the entire cultivation process.

Don’t forget to take rainfall into account when watering blueberries. If there’s a lot of rain, water the plants less. Rain water will also help you maintain the soil acidity levels low.

If you want to ensure consistent water for your plants, especially during dry spells, you can replace the usual garden-hose watering with an automated irrigation system that ensures every plant gets exactly the amount of water it needs. One advantage of smart irrigation systems is that you can also add the fertilizer through it, so the manual labor is significantly reduced.

blueberries in a basket, ready for serving

Drip irrigation for blueberry bushes

Drip irrigation has proved to be the most successful method in boosting blueberry production.

Unlike overhead irrigation, which can encourage fungal growth on blueberry leaves and damage the plants, drip irrigation is ideal because the water goes directly into soil.

Opting for blueberry orchard drip irrigation over other watering techniques has multiple advantages:

  • It provides blueberries with the right amount of water in a consistent manner
  • It optimizes water consumption and reduces waste
  • It reduces the amount of time you need to spend monitoring and manually watering the plants
  • You can add liquid fertilizer to the water and complete two essential tasks at once
  • You can control the irrigation system remotely and schedule watering according to the weather conditions
Quick tip: Learn more about Nenad, an IT expert who decided to invest in agriculture and grow blueberries using our Smart Watering drip irrigation system.

Step 3: Adding fertilizer and nutrients

Adding fertilizers that are rich in acid will help your blueberries reach their full potential. However, you shouldn’t add fertilizer right after planting—the best practice is to avoid it during the first year since the roots are still too sensitive in young plants.

Then, you can fertilize the bushes twice during spring: early on and in the late spring. Look for the following cues to apply fertilizer:

  • When the flower buds first open
  • When the fruit starts getting its form

During the second year, around 2 ounces of ammonium sulfate per plant is enough while blueberries are in full bloom. You can also use any other fertilizer suitable for plants that thrive in acidic soil. You shouldn’t put the fertilizer too close to the plant—12 to 18 inches around the bush. Always remember to water the plants generously after applying fertilizer.

Proper fertilization will improve the root development and will also increase the production of fruit, but be careful not to overfertilize blueberries since they’re also sensitive to too much fertilizer.

Quick tip: Remember to remove weeds consistently to avoid it getting all the nutrients from the soil and leaving nothing for your blueberries.

Step 4: Pruning

Pruning is another important activity in the blueberry cultivation process because it maximizes the amount of yield and prolongs the plants’ lives while keeping them within the desired size limits. However, the good news for first-time growers is that blueberries need little pruning, and it’s not done before the fourth year after planting the bushes. During the first two years, you can optionally cut any flowers that appear because it will help the plant grow more.

Pruning should be done in late winter or early spring, before the new season of growth.

You can begin the pruning process by:

  • Removing any dead stems and tips
  • Thinning overcrowded branches
  • Cutting branches growing near the ground

Make sure you distinguish the old branches from the new ones by their color and texture, cut them to make room for light to penetrate to the center of the plant.

Young plants require little pruning—occasional trimming should be enough in order to keep the plant healthy. Older bushes require more selective cuttings, preferably once a year for a more productive fruit income.

Other benefits of pruning are:

  • Maintaining an open growth habit where the plant is exposed to more air circulation and sunlight
  • Removal of dead or damaged branches that prevent the new ones from coming out
  • Massive improvement of fruit quality.
Quick tip: If you’re not sure how much to cut off, stick to the rule of thumb that growers should remove around ⅓ of the plant during pruning. 

blueberry bushes in the field

Step 5: Harvesting

If you planted two-year-old bushes, they should produce fruit within a two-year period, while the maximum production is expected in six years from the first plantation.

Blueberries are ready for picking between June and August. Ripe fruits are recognizable by their distinctive deep blue color, and the harvested yield will fall off right in your hand. However, don’t pick them right away if you want to ensure that beautiful, sweet taste—wait at least three days after the fruits are fully ripe and then start picking.

Note that not all fruit will be ripe at the same time, so you’ll likely need to pick the blueberries several times to make sure you’ve got them all.

To ensure maximum yield, make sure you’ve taken all measures to avoid blueberry plant diseases, such as powdery mildew or leaf spot diseases, or worms and birds that might want to eat the fruit. Some defense tactics include:

  • Enough space between the bushes
  • Planting the bushes in full sun
  • Avoiding overhead sprinklers
  • Regular cleanup of fallen debris and mulch replacement
  • Plating genetically resistant types of blueberries
  • Using bird deterrent or netting to fend off birds
Quick tip: Don’t pick the fruit if the stem is red or green and you can’t easily detach the berry from the bush.

Grow delicious blueberries with Smart Watering irrigation systems

Just think about it—the more you optimize your blueberry cultivation process, the more you’ll be able to enjoy the return on investment.

By making watering and fertilization more efficient with autonomous irrigation systems, you gain more control over your orchard because you can choose how much time you’re going to spend monitoring your plants on-site. Everything can be done remotely, so a substantial amount of stress is removed knowing that you can react promptly whatever the weather conditions. Moreover, you’ll also see a significant reduction of energy and water consumption thanks to precision irrigation, which provides the optimal amount of water and fertilizer to your plants without any waste.

No more running back and forth to ensure your plants are receiving the necessary care. No more stressing over how much rainfall there will be. No more worrying about wasting too much water.

To learn more about how you can set up your first drip irrigation in your orchard, reach out today and join thousands of farmers who are already enjoying the benefits of smart technology in agriculture.

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