My Blueberry (De)Tour
I moved to Mississippi 14 months ago. We live near the Gulf Coast. As it turns out, this is a great place to grow fruit of all kinds. With a house and 1.5 acres, we inherited several plants that had been neglected for years. I found a spindly pair of blueberry bushes (now trees) to be the most interesting.
In July of 2015, we picked a few cups cups from the bushes. My wife, Lyn, augmented the yield with a handful of strawberries and created one of the best pies I've ever tasted.
Eager to repeat, if not improve upon that performance this year, I did a lot of reading about blueberries during the summer of '15. Last June/July, Lyn and I had to get on ladders or pull the longest canes of berries down to shoulder level in order to pick the fruit. So my most important concern was how to care for the berry bushes to keep them healthy and how to prune them.
The Learning Curve
Two points jumped out at me: First was before pruning, several blog sites recommended waiting until after the plant goes dormant. The thinking is that the bush needs certain nutrients, drawn from the earth in the fall, in order to thrive the following year. Although I had read a few blogs whose authors were not completely sold on the logic, they recommended it anyway. This site gives further insight into the question of when to prune.
So in early February, when my plants had finally gone dormant (this IS Mississippi after all), I followed the instruction of the blog sites I'd read and pruned the long canes lightly, bringing them down to about nine feet in height. I also removed the oldest canes. It was clear the oldest ones were dead or under-producing.
As it turns out, this was not enough work to prevent us from having to pull hard on the canopy to reach berries. More about that later. But I can say either through my efforts, or the weather, or both, we had an excellent yield this year. We pulled about nine cups of fruit the first outing, three the next and as of late July, still got a smattering more.
Still Not Satisfied
As I said, we still had to really reach to get to the berries and I am determined to change that.
Having given the subject a lot of thought, I decided to go with a pruning strategy for a flowering bush we have growing like weeds on our property.
Neglected every bit as much as our blueberries, were our azaleas. The neglect didn't hurt very much. These plants are very hearty and Southern Mississippi is the ideal climate for them. As beautiful when they are in bloom during February and March, the blooms die leaving a wall of green fifteen to twenty feet high, blocking our view of the street and obscuring the house. The bushes are full, but growing wild as they have, they give the property an unkempt appearance.
Once again, I had research to do. The information I found at this site is typical of what you'll find everywhere. As an experiment, and heeding the advise offered, I pruned two azalea bushes from about twelve feet high to chest height. I did this in April. Cutting in this way eliminated a great deal of younger, green branches and most of the leaves on the plants. I was left with a lot of exposed wood and some short sprouts, about shin high. I was afraid I'd really screwed up. But by June the bushes were completely filled in and growing a little too high again.
The time I pruned was important. As the previous link says, if I waited too long I would have risked not getting any flowers on the bushes next year. Now I am confident I will see lots of blooms next year and when they fade, I will prune many more bushes far more radically. Over two or three years, I will substantially improve my house's curb appeal.
Now how does that help with our blueberries?
A Quick Word About Fertilizers
Among the many things I have to do to repair my garden is to move a couple of rose bushes and feed them. My good friend Robert "Bingo Bob" Backel cares for the roses at American Legion Post 1992. They are fine bushes! He says all you need around here is simple "triple 13" fertilizer for roses. I trust that. I also know that the leaves from the water oaks all over my property have the right acid content to naturally fertilize my roses, azaleas and blueberries. However, I wouldn't be so confident in Virginia or Pennsylvania. When living in those places, I swore by miracle grow. From the results I got, I'd recommend them anywhere you have long winters or tight clay soil.
Applying What the Azaleas MIGHT Have Taught Me
With the information gleaned from the azaleas, I considered my research and experience with blueberries. I decided that for at least one year, I would put some of the collective learning of the blueberry blogs aside. First, there is when to prune. I don't see the logic of the autumn carbohydrate absorption mentioned in a previous link. If I prune a plant, leaving some of the green growth in place, it SHOULD still absorb nutrients from soil like any other plant. So waiting until early next spring doesn't seem to be that important.
Further, not a single new chute from my February pruning fruited this year. Not one. They are beautiful and healthy and the old wood fruited very nicely. But the time to prune, recommended by my sources, didn't help me much.
So, I decided to treat my blueberries like my azaleas this year. Now that the fruit has been harvested, I have already pruned them. I am calling it a modified radical prune. I didn't want to take all the canes down to a half or a third of their size. I don't know what that would do to the plant. So I took the overall plant from approximately 10 feet to just over chest high in some places.
"What Have I Done?!"
When I stepped back to observe this pruning job, I felt like Alec Guinness at the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai.
As you can see, I have left myself with seriously ugly blueberry bushes. It is my hope that I am not stuck with that. That hope is buoyed by the growth you can see coming through the center of the plant on the right. I believe both plants will release new growth even before the end of the summer.
By this time next year, if my thinking is correct, I will have slightly shorter, fuller bushes. I am also fairly confident that all the new growth will produce fruit, if fruit is to be had at all.
Also note the long sprigs I left near the top of the plants. Those are three examples of growth triggered by last February's pruning. I want to monitor their growth and compare their yield to next year's growth and the small amount of old greenery I left this time around.
The Beauty of the Blueberry
I have come to look forward to July for lots of reasons. It's the height of summer. I love the Fourth of July. Now, I wait like a rambunctious child for the blueberries to come in.
My wife already spoils me rotten with all the meals and desserts she can cook. But you should see what she can do with fruit! For the last two summers she has been experimenting with blueberry recipes. Pies, cakes, ice cream! And of course, I have to have them on my cereal!
Along with being an amazing annual treat, this fruit is highly nutritious and is rich in antioxidants. Second to strawberries, blueberries are probably among the most nutritious foods you can grow yourself with little difficulty.
Updates to Follow
I will insert an update here in November 2016 and again in February and July of 2017. Follow the progress of the now-ugly bushes. We'll see if they green up and produce fruit.