Blueberries can be a great plant to have in the home garden. Not only are blueberries great for their tasty fruit during the summer months, but they make a nice hedge or screen in the landscape. Besides fruit in the summer, blueberries have attractive white or pink flowers in the spring and wonderful red to yellow foliage in the fall. Now that we are in late winter with spring just around the corner, it is time to be pruning blueberry bushes before new growth starts.
When pruning blueberry bushes, you should prune to where the bush is narrow at the base and open in the center. While pruning, remember to take a step back occasionally to make visual observations of the plant to keep from getting carried away while pruning. Most of the smaller stem and canes can be pruned with hand pruners, while for your larger sized stems you will need to use a pair of loppers or a pruning saw.
Of course the main objective when pruning blueberry bushes is to increase fruit production. The first step that should be taken when you begin pruning is to take out any dead canes. These canes are not producing any fruit and provide a great location for pest to enter into the plant. Dead or dying stems will be light gray in color, while healthy, living stems will be brown in color.
Over time blueberry bushes will form many root suckers, which are stems that come out of the ground from the roots. On mature bushes, many of these root suckers will be away from the center of the bush. You want to prune out these root suckers, especially the ones that are a fair distance away from the base of the plant. It is okay and maybe even desirable to keep a few root suckers that have come up within the base of the bushes. The root suckers within the base of the plant will be new growth that will replace older canes over time.
The center of the blueberry bush should be thinned to allow for sunlight and good air circulation through the plant. Remove canes that are preventing the center of the bush from being open in order to open up the center of the shrub. Along with thinning the bush, be sure to prune out any stems that are touching or crossing each other.
You want to prune out any shoots that you would think would touch the ground when loaded with fruit in the summer. Do not be concerned about removing too many fruit buds when pruning. Pruning will be helpful in thinning out some fruit buds so that you will have larger fruit and the canes will be able to withstand the weight of the fruit.
Annual pruning of blueberry bushes is a practice that will not only increase fruit size and yield but will also keep plants in good health and productive for years to come.
Jessica Strickland is an Agriculture Extension Agent, specializing in horticulture for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wayne County.