Blueberry bushes are medium sized shrubs that make a great addition to any backyard garden not only because they produce yummy blueberries, but they’re also very cold hardy, making them perennial shrubs in almost all regions of the US.
In general, blueberry bushes are quite low maintenance and are very strong throughout harsh winters, the only serious work that they require is pruning in the early spring.
Technically, blueberry bushes don’t need to be pruned at all and can be left to grow on their own, as they do in wild forests. However, if your goal is to grow the best blueberries, then you definitely want to prune your bush to naturally get more and bigger berries.
Pruning blueberries is also a way to promote the health of the bush, to prevent diseases, and to encourage new growth. This is the case for most fruiting shrubs or trees, like blackberries, peaches, and cherry trees for example.
When to Prune Blueberry Bushes
It’s very important that you prune the bush while it’s in its dormant period and not actively growing. If you prune a blueberry bush while it’s already growing and producing new canes, or branches, you’ll not only stunt its growth but could send the bush into shock.
The bush is dormant during the winter months, usually December through March, although this depends on how intense your winters are. You can prune at any time during this period since the bush is completely dormant, although it’s best to prune in early spring.
This is because pruning away old growth encourages new growth, so pruning blueberries in early spring wakes the bush up from its dormant period and provokes growth for the spring and summer ahead. Plus, by waiting until the winter is over you can also remove any branches that were damaged because of winter snows.
It’s best to prune your blueberry bush every winter, to save yourself extra work that you would need to do the next year. As the canes grow older, they produce less berries, so if you don’t consistently prune the bush you’ll have many canes but not many berries.
Benefits of Pruning
There’s actually many positive effects of pruning blueberries aside from increased fruit production. Pruning is very effective in preventing diseases in shrubs since you’re removing any damaged or obstructive branches that could be easily infected.
Additionally, pruning blueberries increases air circulation in the branches, making the whole plant healthier. By removing all the tiny branches that have grown in the center- and doing so right before spring starts- you expose the center of the bush to sunlight before all the leaves grow in.
Pruning forces the bush to produce new branches, whereas if you don’t prune, the existing branches will just grow older and produce less fruit. Plus, by having few branches, the bush can better focus its nutrients rather than trying to produce fruit on many branches.
Even with young plants it’s useful to prune them yearly to train them into a good structure for the years to come. However, as I’ll explain with the pruning steps, you don’t need to prune the young bushes as vigorously.
About the Blueberry Bush
First, it’s important to know some basic characteristics of your blueberry bush so that you can better understand how it grows and what it needs!
Thankfully, blueberries don’t have any specific vulnerabilities for diseases, so you don’t have to do much work in that respect. Also, there aren’t any pests that are known to attack blueberry bushes, which is another reason why they’re generally very easy to care for.
However, deer typically love blueberries as much as we do, so you could have deer attracted to your garden because of these bushes. Try planting deer resistant flowers near your blueberry bushes to protect them.
Blueberry bushes are evergreen shrubs and are native to North America and Europe and are very cold hardy. In fact, blueberry bushes actually need temperatures below 45 F in order to produce berries.
All blueberry bushes need several days of freezing temperatures for their branches to harden- these are literally called chill hours! The required minimum varies for different types of bushes, as some are better for warmer climates.
Blueberry Bush Varieties
It’s important to get a blueberry bush that will grow well in your region, since the different varieties have differing hardiness levels and if your bush is struggling due to the weather, it definitely won’t produce its best berries.
For example, Rabbit Eye blueberry bushes are less cold hardy and require less chill hours, so these are perfect for those living further south wanting to grow blueberries.
There are also different sized bushes, so you may want to consider this if you’re growing in a container or have a small yard. There are “tall bush” blueberries which are, of course, larger bushes compared to the “small bush” varieties and even “half bush” hybrid bushes that are perfect shrub shapes.
Example of a low-bush variety, which grows more evenly up and outward.
Whichever variety you’re growing, the pruning process is the same for removing old canes. However, you might want to consider how you want to prune the shape of the bush depending on how large and in what direction it grows.
Some blueberry cultivars grow more upright, so you might want to trim more off the top of the bush to keep it growing equally, for example. Or, for types with more arching branches you may need to trim off their drooping ends.
This is another beneficial element of pruning your bush- you can mold the shape of it and make it more or less compact depending on what you prefer and have space for.
Lastly, something that’s really interesting about blueberry bushes is that they’re not self fertilizing. This means that you need another blueberry bush of another variety next to the other- this is called a cross-pollination partner. Only with the help of their partner and pollinators can each bush flower and fruit.
A more cold hardy blueberry variety that grows further North and with more evergreen characteristics.
Before getting to the step-by-step guidelines for pruning, here are some useful tips to make sure that you’re fully prepared for pruning.
Firstly, it’s important to use high quality and sharp equipment so that you can make clean cuts while pruning. If you have to rip and tear the branches off, this will be too aggressive for the plant and send it into shock.
It’s best to use sharp shears or garden scissors for the twigs and smaller branches, but you may also need a handsaw for the older branches that are larger and thicker. After you finish pruning, make sure you disinfect your tools before moving to the next bush so you don’t spread any disease.
The flower buds, from which the blueberries grow, are on the last 2-3 inches of the branches, so it’s important not to shear back the bush. The flowers grow on old growth, so you won’t get any flowers or fruits on the new branches.
However, as I said earlier the old branches produce less and lower quality fruit. So, ideally you want to have a bush with several branches that are 3 to 6 years old. This is the sweet spot where you’ll have many branches that are producing the best fruit.
Guide for Pruning Blueberries
Now we can get into the process for pruning blueberries to keep them healthy and their fruits at their best. If you follow the steps in this guide and prune every year, you’ll have a healthy blueberry bush for over 30 years!
Removing Dead Branches
This step is an essential part of any plant care, even for plants that don’t produce fruit and for houseplants. You want to remove any branches that are clearly damaged because the damaged branches are exposed to disease more so than the rest of the plant, and can put the whole bush at risk.
Additionally, damaged branches are a huge cause of stress for plants so by removing them you help the plant focus its energy and nutrients on growing elsewhere. It’s also helpful to remove any dead branches for this same reason and to declutter so there’s space for the bush to grow.
Wherever you see dead or broken branches, cut it off at the point that it breaks from the larger branch or if it’s the entire branch, cut all the way down to the base of the plant. This step also helps with aesthetics and will ensure that your bush looks completely healthy once it starts growing again!
You also want to remove any branches that are crossing or rubbing against each other, even if they’re completely healthy. This is because branches that are crossing are most likely to become infected if they’re rubbing and weakening the bark of the branch.
For these branches, cut them down all the way to the base of the plant to make sure they don’t grow back. After removing these branches, the structure of the bush should be open with all the branches growing outwards.
Remove One Third of Branches
Yes, that’s right- one third of all the remaining, healthy branches. Although this might seem like a bit of overkill, this is how you maximize berries and the health of the bush every year.
This is because, if you do this every year, you’re taking out the aging branches and creating room for new branches. The result is a healthy bush with branches that are all about 3 to 6 years old- which is peak blueberry production- and the new growth of that year.
For this to happen, you want to cut back the oldest branches, which will be easy to spot. They are thicker, about 1 inch in diameter, than new branches and have cracked, older looking bark versus the reddish-brown bark of the new branches.
First take out the branches that are clearly the oldest so that your bush only has young and healthy branches. Next, look for any branches that are drooping or arching towards the ground and cut these. For all the branches you remove, cut them all the way down to the ground.
You also want to remove any branches that are growing in or towards the center of the bush because these will eventually rub against other branches and disrupt the shape of the shrub. Lastly, look for branches that are growing very low to the ground or are growing too much out and not up- these can get easily infected being so close to the ground.
The aim of removing all these branches is to create a healthy structure for the bush to grow into for the coming growing period but also to create space for new growth. However, if you prune too much or too aggressively, you can shock the bush and it won’t produce any new growth!
Remove Tiny Twigs
Once you’ve removed all the large branches and have a good structure established, it’s also helpful to remove the tiny twigs that are growing off of the main branches. This way you’re encouraging new growth both for new cane branches and smaller stems with flower buds.
For this step, you want to clip off all of the smaller stems that have branched off from the main structure. You should even remove the twigs that still have flower buds from the previous year, so that you can make room for new flower buds to grow.
You also want to look out for shoots that are growing very low to the ground or twigs that have branched off close to the base of the plant. Ideally, you want large branches that are growing upwards with stems that branch off on the upper half of the bush.
However, this step is something you can decide on based on the shape you want the bush and the space you have to work with. This step of the pruning process is more about shaping the structure of the bush and less concerned with berry production, so you can use your own discretion.
Pruning Overgrown Bushes
Whether you have an overgrown blueberry bush because you’ve forgotten to prune it in the past years or maybe you found a wild blueberry bush on your property- they’re very common in forests in the Northern states- it’ll take a bit more work and time to get this bush into shape!
This is why it’s recommended that you prune your blueberry bush every year- as with any maintenance needs, you can easily do it often or you can avoid the work and then have a lot to do at once.
Follow the same pruning process for overgrown bushes, except you’ll want to cut down half of the existing branches, since most of them will be older than the ideal age. You will still go in the same order of starting with dead or broken branches, then picking the oldest ones and then working on the structure of the bush.
Yet, you don’t cut down more than half, otherwise you’ll send the plant into shock and it’ll struggle to recover. Even if there’s lots of dead and very old branches on the plant, it might be best not to remove all of them so you aren’t disturbing the plant.
Depending on how overgrown the bush is, you may need to work at it for the next 2 or 3 years to get it to optimal health. Because you don’t want to over-prune, it’s possible that you need to leave some of the old branches and just come back for them when you prune the next winter.
Pruning Younger Bushes
The process is a bit easier and takes less time for younger blueberry bushes since they won’t have as many older branches, so the bulk of this work is just creating a good structure for the bush to grow into.
So, for pruning younger bushes you want to focus more on removing the branches that are crossing or drooping. It’s best to remove any branches or little shoots that you see growing low to the ground or near the base to help the young bush grow up- literally!
The Finished Look
Once you’ve finished the whole pruning process, you should clearly be able to see the structure of the bush. All that will be remaining are the healthy and strong, primary branches that create the framework for the bush.
Generally speaking, you want the bush to be narrow at the base and expand up and outwards. The bush should look uncluttered, without any small twigs on the main branches. Lastly, clean up the base of the bush by removing any dead plant material that has collected on the ground and be sure to compost all the branches that you’ve removed while pruning.
Pruning Blueberries for Container Gardens
There are some different things you might want to consider if you’re growing a blueberry bush in a container garden and not directly in the ground. For one, you’ll want to pay more attention to pruning the shape of the bush so that it reasonably fits within your growing space.
This will look different for everyone, but you may want to prune to keep the bush more compact or more narrow and growing upwards, for example. Another major factor to consider is the size of the root ball so the roots can grow comfortably.
Naturally, as the plant grows its root ball will get larger, but if you’re growing in a container then the root ball will become more dense and root bound. This can deter growth and might eventually lead to drainage problems if the root ball is too tight.
This means that you’ll need to do a bit of pruning with the root ball as well. So, you need to take the bush completely out of the container and trim the root ball with a pair of shears. For this, trim the outer layer of roots just so that the root ball decreases in size.
You want to make sure that you’re not cutting off any major roots because this will cause lots of stress to the plant. It’s important to just cut the outer layer with minor roots.
Just as pruning blueberry branches stimulates new growth, pruning the root ball will also encourage new root growth which keeps the root system healthy. When pruning the roots, it’s important to keep an equal ratio of the size of the root ball to the above ground growth.
After Pruning Care
At this point, you’ve done the majority of the work and pretty much all the maintenance that your blueberry bush needs! There are, however, a few things that you can do to support the new growth that will follow pruning.
First, you can fertilize your blueberry bush at the end of spring to jump start the growing period. You don’t want to fertilize immediately after pruning blueberries because the plant will need some time to adjust to having lost its branches.
You can add in organic compost or worm casting around the base of the bush to give some extra nutrients to the roots. If you’re growing in a container, you can do this step whenever you put the root ball back in the container.
It’s best to fertilize around March or April, depending on your climate, so that the frost from winter is completely over and the warm spring weather will encourage growth.
It also helps to mulch around the bush once you’ve finished pruning, because mulch helps with water drainage and creating a loose texture with the soil around the base. However, it’s important not to mulch directly on top of the base because this can trap in too much moisture.
You’re Prepared to Prune!
Here I’ve outlined all the steps and necessary information to prune blueberries so that you can get the most out of your blueberry bush. So I hope you’re feeling ready to work!
It may seem like a lot of work, and it’s definitely not a quick task, but pruning your bush pays off in many ways. For one, you’ll be growing your own food and these blueberries that you’ll be harvesting will be much larger and also tastier! Plus, you’ll be taking good care of your blueberry bush by avoiding risk of infections and diseases.
Pruning your blueberry bush is pretty much essential for a healthy bush and is rewarding work in many ways. Other than pruning, blueberry bushes don’t need much maintenance and grow very well in almost all parts of the U.S., making them a classic for all gardeners.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.