Blueberry Pruning

Here in the Pacific Northwest, and specifically west of the Cascade mountain range, blueberries grow really well. They love our naturally acidic soil. Washington state has become a large producer of blueberries as a commercial crop.

Blueberries are also a fantastic crop for the suburban gardener. They do not require acres of space to grow, some varieties can even be maintained in a container. Blueberries will not ask you to scale a ladder to prune them each year. And they provide you with pounds of delicious berries to be eaten fresh of the bush or popped in the freezer for smoothies come winter time.

Before we get to when and how to prune, if you do have a newly planted blueberry bush, it is a good practice to remove the flowers the first year or two. This allows the shrub to spend more of it's energy establishing a really healthy root system instead of trying to bear a handful of blueberries for you those first seasons. Keep in mind that a healthy blueberry bush will produce for decades. So the patience you show it's first two years will be repaid for many years to come!

The blueberry bush does require annual pruning, and it is best done in the late winter while the bush is dormant. For the Pacific Northwest gardener, that means pruning in January or February. Why would you want to prune your blueberry? Won't that minimize how many berries I get? Those are valid questions. Taking the time to prune your shrub will result in more berries of good size and a healthier plant. By removing some of the older growth or unhealthy growth, you reduce instances of disease, allow for better sunlight and promote good air circulation. All things your fruiting shrub will thank you for! So, get your hand pruners (bypass, not anvil), loppers and a pruning saw ready, and let's get to work!

This is one of the shrubs in my yard. It is roughly 30 years old and still produces plenty of blueberries each year. This is one of the eight blueberry shrubs in my backyard. Some of them are younger than this guy. A blueberry plant produces fruit on one year old wood, which is last year's growth. Those canes will continue to produce fruit for a few years. When the canes get older, six to seven years or older, its fruit production diminishes. Your goal when you prune each year is to select the best 6 to 12 canes in your shrub and prune out the rest. You ultimately want a balance of 1 to 6 year old canes left behind. This means you will be removing 50 to 75% of the plant depending on how overgrown it has become.

When I begin pruning, I like to remove any of the dead wood on the shrub. This is a personal preference. Some people can look past it and get to work pruning. For me, it is like beginning to cook in a dirty kitchen. I just can't do it. So, I take my pruners and clip out any of the obvious dead areas of the blueberry plant. When you look at your plant, it is pretty easy to see the dead twigs vs. the healthier twigs. In the photo above, the young, healthy red growth from last year stands out against the grayed, dead branches needing removal. 

 As you look over the canes on your shrub, determining which you will keep or cut, you will also want to pay attention to your vegetative buds and your fruiting buds. You will want a nice balance of these throughout your blueberry bush. 

Belle, one of our hens, played a supervisory role in my pruning this weekend. She wanted to make sure there would be excess blueberries for her and the other ladies later this summer!

When first approaching your blueberry bush for pruning, you may wonder how you will know which canes are older and which are younger. How would you know if one is three or four or even five years old unless you had a color coded system you used each year? You can tell the youngest simply because they are often the thinnest and shortest canes. They will be nice vibrant green whips (or shoots) coming up from the base of the shrub. Pick the best of these to keep and prune the rest out. In the photo above, you can see various canes of differing years growth. The oldest canes are grayer in color and often have thicker bark on them. They may even be growing moss or lichen as the one above. Depending on how many total canes you have on your shrub will determine how many of the older canes you remove. Remember you are aiming to keep the 6 to 12 healthiest canes as well as a balance of ages of canes. The middle aged canes are thicker in size but still have a smooth appearance. Once you have decided which older cane(s) to remove, use your pruning saw and make a clean cut close to the ground.

Sadie also was out watching my work this weekend. She was happy to haul off any branches as I removed them from the blueberries.

Once you have narrowed down the base of your shrub to the best selection of canes, you can work your way back up to the canopy. This is your final inspection phase. Are there areas of crossing branches, twiggy or unproductive growth? Remove these to allow for that air circulation and sun exposure that your blueberry wants to have. And there you have it! Your blueberry plant is ready for a successful season and a bumper crop.