As you know, life is hectic. In this busy mindset, I’ve neglected to prune my blueberry bushes for several years now.
This task should be done in late winter, preferably in February-ish but I’ve let it slide. The kids have kept me going non-stop, and it’s “needs/must” most days. So dinner and laundry supersede pruning.
But my blueberry crop has suffered from this lack of care. In fact, over the past few years of non-pruning, my yield has dipped significantly.
Blueberry bushes need to be pruned each year. Pruning helps to maintain the size and shape of the bush to maximize fruit production and increase overall fruit quality.
So never feel guilty about cutting off your fruiting buds. The bush needs to focus on growing, not producing fruit.
Our mission is long-term productivity for a higher quantity of sweeter and bigger fruit.
No more excuses. It’s time to prune. And honestly, blueberry pruning is a lot, I repeat, a lot easier than you might think!Read more: How-to prune blueberry bushes in winter for a more abundant crop
Winter blueberry bush pruning blues – why prune in winter?
In winter, blueberry bushes are puny and sparse. Their leaves and foliage were shed in the fall giving them a leggy and twiggy appearance. Sad-looking bushes!
Don’t be tempted to skip winter pruning as it is vital for the bushes’ health. Even though they don’t look like they need pruning, they do.
The best time to prune blueberry bushes is in late winter to early spring after the chance of severe cold is over and before new growth has begun. (February – April)
Plus, pruning when the bushes are in dormancy leaves the plant less stressed. Since the bush is not in an active state of growth, no carbohydrate-producing foliage is being removed.
Besides, It’s easier in winter to see the structure of the plant and decide which branches should be removed.
I’m tackling this task now before other garden tasks like planting seeds consume me. Try to prune yours before the end of March!
In winter, flower buds are easily visible on one-year-old wood. By pruning, you can adjust how many buds you have to regulate your summer crop.
There is one pruning exception. If you just planted your bushes this past summer, you get a pass. Blueberries do not need to be pruned in the first year.
Training Young Plants (1 to 3 years of age)
For the first two years of life, you must train your blueberry bushes so that they grow properly.
If vigorous, well-rooted two-year-old plants are set, they do not need cutting back the first year. Just make sure you remove fruit buds shortly after planting.
In the second year, pruning should be moderately heavy to stimulate strong new growth on selected canes.
So in this second year, cut the longest stems back to 2/3rds of their length if the bush didn’t grow much in the first year. This pruning will help the bush branch out.
Never allow plants younger than three years of age to bear more than a cluster or two of fruit, or the onset of the productive period will be delayed.
Pruning Bearing Plants (over 3-4 years of age)
Make large “shaping cuts” by removing all low-spreading branches and the oldest canes if they are weak, particularly if in the center of the plant.
Also “head back” those “bull shoots” (shoots that grow in the middle of the plant) to the desired height to keep the bush from growing too tall.
This process helps you automatically select the more upright canes to bear your crop the next season.
On the remaining canes, systematically “thin out” the shorter, thinner shoots, leaving enough of the thick shoots to bear the crop and make new growth.
It’s better to prune too lightly than too heavily. Lighter pruning is usually practiced, as the plant grows older because it can carry more “wood” successfully due to a larger root system.
Practice makes perfect. So experience over time will tell you how many shoots a variety of a certain age can carry and still perform well.
Renewal blueberry bush pruning
When blueberries are about 8 to 10 years old, they are at their productive peak— but renewal growth has reached a minimum, and production will begin to decline from year to year.
To prolong your plant’s productivity, renewal pruning is necessary.
- Weak or diseased canes should be cut entirely. Canes will have poor vigor and you’ll notice low fruit bud production. It may be necessary to either cut the cane back to a strong lateral which is properly located or to cut the cane severely back to within 2 to 3 ft of the ground.
- By the latter method, it is hoped that new lateral branches can be forced from below the cut.
- Either method may result in a 1- to 3-year crop reduction, but the plants should then bear several more good crops.
- Cut out soft lower twig growth or any growth that appears leggy and weak. Look for growth near the bottom that started late in the previous season, as it will not have had enough time to develop fully.
- Remove this late growth near the bottom of the plant, preserving resources for the top of the plant. These twigs are the ones that didn’t grow enough in the last season, so they are too small to produce any fruit this year.
- Cut off upper twig growth. If a cane did not produce fruit this year, cut back the extra growth from last year. You can recognize the twiggy growth because it will have an abundance of smaller twigs, more than other branches. Also, the wood that produces this type of growth will not be as shiny as newer wood growth.
- When cutting, take it back to a place where the branch looks stronger, one that is growing upwards rather than sideways. Make the cut right above an outward-facing bud, or do it on the next branch.
Did you know?
Coffee grounds are highly acidic so sprinkle them on your acid-loving plants like azaleas and blueberries
General step-by-step winter blueberry bush pruning instructions…
Start by cutting off dead branches and the branches that got damaged during winter storms. Cut these stems off to where they connect to the thicker branch. Also, cut away any branches that didn’t grow well last season or look diseased. (Look for discolored branches.)
Never leave a stump behind as it could become an entry point for disease. If an entire branch is dead, cut that branch back to the ground. You may use sheers or even a saw for the thicker branches if needed.
Next, cut off branches that cross each other, especially if they are rubbing against each other. An open bush with no crossed branches is the goal. Straight canes growing upwards are ideal.
Eliminating a few canes from the center of the bush opens the plant’s airflow exposure and permits the sun to permeate. Again, cut these branches down to the base of the bush.
By doing so, you’re allowing the bush to focus its resources on canes growing straight up, which will be stronger and help you create a better-shaped bush. It will also keep the fruit off the ground.
For young blueberry bushes (or older bushes that have been well-maintained) this is the general rule: Cut one-third of the remaining branches down to the ground. Always choose the oldest, thickest, and most gnarled ones to remove.
This intense level of pruning encourages new, productive canes to emerge from the roots.
However, only remove 2 or 3 mature canes per year to help sustain growth. Because canes stop producing as many blueberries after four years, start with the oldest canes. Mature canes are at least two years old.
Repeat these steps every winter for the most productive blueberry crop possible.
1. Never shear back blueberries and turn them into the shape of a meatball, focus on creating the right shape. Their fruiting buds are located in the outermost 2-3 inches of stem growth. Shearing back the plants remove all the flower buds so you will get no crop. Be mindful: blueberries grow on the side-shoots, off of the main branches of the bushes
2. If you don’t properly prune your blueberry bushes, the existing branches will age, and new, fruit-producing branches will not be formed. Older, unpruned blueberry bushes tend to produce more leaves than berries, and any berries that are produced are small and produced only on the outermost stems. This totally happened to me last year! So my bushes were beautiful in a leafy way but the berries were tiny and sour.
3. Additionally, you need to thin out the middle of the bush so that it can get proper airflow, discouraging disease. Pruning also opens up the middle to sunlight, providing nutrients and ripening the fruit.
4. Blueberries produce their flowers on old wood, meaning that the buds for each year’s berry crop are formed during the summer and autumn of the previous season. Protect your blueberry bushes from deer in the winter or they may strip all the buds off the stems. We had to fence our bushes in to keep those cute deer out.
Blueberries make for a great privacy hedge because they grow in beefy bushes. For cross-pollination purposes, you need at least two varieties but three or more is even better.
Blueberries are early, mid, and late season so the more varieties you have the longer you can extend the season, up to 2.5-3 months if you are lucky. Where I live, you can depend on your first crops right around the 4th of July.
Some blueberries can grow nearly anywhere in North America if you can provide acid soil rich in organic matter. The typical yield is 4 quarts per plant (4 liters).
Go ahead and put a grocery store price tag on that yield and you’ll see why we have 10 blueberry bushes in our yard and that number (green fingers crossed) goes up by a few bushes each year.
Clean those tools!
It’s a good idea to disinfect and sterilize your horticultural tools to prevent the spread of disease-causing pathogens in your landscape. Let’s keep our plants healthy!
I’ve done it two ways either with diluted bleach or with ethanol or isopropyl alcohol. Both are easy and cheap to acquire. I don’t love corrosive bleach either but it works.
To use chlorine bleach to disinfect horticultural tools, mix up a 10% bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water) and do a 30-minute soak.
The solution has a short lifespan—effectiveness is cut in half after two hours—so fresh batches should be made for each round of cleaning.
The advantage of alcohol (ethanol or isopropyl) to sanitize your gardening tools is that you can either wipe or dip them in a solution that is 70–100% alcohol, with no soaking required. This solution doesn’t need to get rinsed off like bleach and it’s immediately effective. I would still dry the tools when finished to avoid rust.
If you want a natural solution (likely not as effective) mix a 25% solution (one-part pine oil to three parts water) and then soak the tools in the solution. Rinse and dry tools when finished.