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Grow Your Own Blueberries | Summer 2011 Out Here Magazine

You don't need much space to grown blueberries. With their shallow, fibrous root system, they can grow in whiskey barrel-size containers.

Healthy fruit is easy, convenient to cultivate

By T.L. Dew
Photography by iStock

One blueberry bush can produce up to 10 pounds of a fruit that's packed with antioxidants and vitamins to boost your physical and mental health. So, why not grow your own?

You don't need a lot of land; in fact, blueberries can grow in your back yard or, with their shallow, fibrous root system, in whiskey barrel-size containers.

"Blueberries are relatively easy to grow," says Patrick Kelley, who, along with his brother Jon, has grown blueberries for almost 40 years.

Today, they raise 20 acres of blueberries at Kelleys' Berry Farm in Trousdale County, Tenn., where they also grow blackberries and strawberries.

The average family can plant a few bushes and, after the bush matures in about three years, pick their own berries for up to 20 years.

To begin, choose a spot that gets eight hours of full sun a day, he says.

Then make sure you have the right soil type and texture.

"You need a loose, loamy soil that's high in organic matter," Kelley says. The soil needs to be acidic with a pH of 4.0 to 5.5.

The pH is critical, Kelley says; that's usually what's wrong when blueberry bushes fail.

Having the right soil is key, whether you are growing in the ground or in containers. If the soil is correct, your bushes could last a long time. "You could grow one in a 30-gallon pot for 15 years," Kelley says.

Choose bushes that will thrive in your climate, Kelley advises. Blueberries come in three types: Southern Highbush, Northern Highbush, and Rabbiteye.

Northern Highbush, the most widely planted blueberries, are high-chill varieties, and do best in climate hardiness zones 5-7. Southern Highbush are low-chill varieties, hybridized for the heat and low winter chill of the Southeast, Sunbelt, and California.

Rabbiteye are more drought- and heat-tolerant and grow well in climate zones 7-9.

Check with your local agricultural extension agent to see which type grows best in your region.

Within those three types are many varieties. Whichever type you choose, your bushes will produce more and bigger fruit if you have several plants and varieties to cross-pollinate, Kelley says. "You need two different cultivars for adequate fruit set,'' he says.

Southern Highbush options to consider are O'Neal, Ozark Blue, and Star. Northern Highbush choices include Duke, Blueray, Bluejay, and Bluegold. Some Rabbiteye varieties include Premier, Climax, Tifblue, and Powderblue.

Though blueberry bushes are quite small when you buy them, most will grow to 4 to 6 feet tall. Rabbiteye bushes can reach 10 feet.

Plant bushes 5 to 6 feet apart and don't worry about staking them. Then water, Kelley says.

"If there's no water, there's no blueberries," he says. "If they ever dry out they can die very easily."

Wait until the bush is fully leafed before fertilizing, and then be careful to not give it too much. "You can easily kill blueberries by overfertilization," Kelley says.

Avoid that by applying fertilizer in small amounts, incrementally, over a long period of time, rather than applying a large amount all at once. Additionally, nitrogen fertilizer recommendations vary among regions, so check with your local extension office to determine which — and how much — fertilizer works best for your plants.

Blueberries attract birds, and they can wipe out the whole crop. Use garden netting to protect berries.

Mature plants will bloom in spring before a summer harvest. After harvest, prune bushes that have dead branches. If you wait until fall to prune, you just might cut off next year's fruit.

Tennessee writer T.L. Dew raises a handful of blueberry bushes.