Returning to Our Roots // Caring for Blueberries in the First Year

Hello, friends! I feel like I've been away for a long while, even though I just spoke with you on Wednesday. Truth be told, our family got hit with another nasty virus - the third one this winter! - and have been knocked down for the past few days. This one has definitely been the worst one yet, and I can't say that I'll miss it when it finally leaves us. I haven't really had much time to work, let alone write, and it's actually given me some time to sit and read other things, watch some inspiring documentaries, kind of get ready for a new turn and twist headed to the blog. It's really inspired me to write more essays on how we're changing our lifestyle and make this garden work for us as a family, for our lives. I'm really excited to share my thoughts with you. I can see that you have been reading and liking what we have to say on waste-free living, so I hope that you enjoy what's coming next!

For now, I want to talk about our berry bushes. If you're first-time gardeners and urban homesteaders, or as we call it, "backyard farmers" LOL, then you might want to invest some time this spring by planting blueberry and/or raspberry bushes! They're quite easy to take care of and will give you some plentiful fruit in upcoming years if given the proper treatment. I was so excited to care for mine this year, that I probably started too early since the cold has returned somewhat, but I'm going to rest assured that they were ready for a minor pruning and a little bit of fertilizer. We have fruit buds starting on the blueberries already! We also have a row of red raspberries and some blackberries that were labeled "hybrids," so I'm not sure what happened there... I was not part of the berry-bush-purchasing-decision. That was actually what started our whole idea of gardening! We loved going to the U-Pick Blueberry Farm in Lone Tree so much that my dad thought, "Let's just get some bushes!" That led to nine more bushes and three apple trees... which led to our Amish neighbor letting us know that we could use their garden patch in the next growing season if we wanted. Well, we won't be using that patch, but we're now starting our own!

Planting

When it comes to purchasing a bush, if you're wanting fruit sooner rather than later, it's best to purchase a plant that is two-years-old and a bare-root plant. Blueberry bushes don't need much maintenance in the first two years of their life, so if you have one younger, just leave it be when it comes to pruning this year. Tad's actually pictured with some of our red raspberry bushes above! 

If you happen to be purchasing your first set of bushes this year, then you'll want to plant in early spring, when the soil is workable, in cooler climates. In mild climates, plant in the late autumn. That's when we planted our last year! I find that your garden center typically knows when it's best to plant everything and makes the plants that are best for the time of the season easily available to you. We purchased these bushes in the autumn because that's when our local greenhouse started selling them. I believe ours are two-year-old bushes, as they're pretty well grown and already budding.

If you are planting new bushes this year, you'll want to plant them in a hole that is about 18 inches deep and 18 inches wide. If you can, after placing the roots in the hole, fill with a compost and dirt mix. Apply mulch around the base of the bushes. 

Pruning

Blueberry bushes are ready to prune when the first fruit buds appear on each cane. For most people that's around March or April, but can happen earlier depending on what zone you live in. We live in Zone 5! You'll want to prune early, as pruning in the fall can lead to new shoots growing too early and being killed off by the cold. 

To start, you'll want to look for any dead branches. These can be fairly easy to identify as they won't be very colorful. Branches that are fruit bearing and healthy should be red in color and starting buds. You'll want to remove any branches that break away easily (these can be near the top, too) or any that don't have fruit buds. If it's not going to be producing any fruit this season, then don't keep it. Be sure to check down at the base for any branches crowding the middle of the bush. If it seems to compact, then the berries in the center won't be getting a whole lot of light on them. 

If there are branches growing from the middle that are long and only have fruit branching off at the very ends and not any growing along the length of the branch, then those are ones you may want to remove. Remember, the branches with healthy and new growth are red and have fruit buds! You can see in my photo above that I had a few dead canes in the center of my bush. Goodbye!

Maintaining Your Bushes

The size of your berries is affected by how much water they receive and how you care for them in their first year planted. They are also very much affected by the nutrients in your soil! Blueberries love highly acidic soil. I'll talk more about that later.

The bigger the berry doesn't mean that it's going to taste better. If your bushes are being overwatered, the berries will become large but won't hold much flavor. Not enough water, and the berries will be much smaller. Mulching your plants is the best way to insure your plant is holding onto plenty of water without you having to water too often. 

Before you fertilize, you'll want to cultivate around the base of your plants and remove any new weed or grass growth. I raked out about 6 inches around each plant. 

Fertilize them with a nitrogen-rich, organic fertilizer. If it's your first year, you may want to make sure the nitrogen count isn't super high, as it might burn the roots. I've heard that used coffee grounds make a really great nitrogen fertilizer! I ended up just purchasing some fertilizer because I have a lot of bushes and apple trees for them to all have coffee, but I might save up and try this next year. After that, you'll want to mulch them again for the year. You could also use sawdust! This is something that I still need to do. I might pack a layer of manure under that as well, so everything stays nice and compact. Mulching also prevents new weeds from growing and prevents fungus from growing. 

The Worst Part... Snipping off the New Buds

Here comes the worst of it... In the first year or two, you'll want to  cut off the new buds. Ouch, right? You're so proud of your little blueberry babes! They're growing so well! By doing this, you are encouraging your bush to put all of its energy into producing fruit for you to eat. This is easily done by just removing the fruit buds with your fingers. Since I'll be out in the garden plenty this year, I'll be able to keep a close eye on them. 

Once your bush has been established for about three years, then you can let the buds come to fruit, but make sure you keep them well maintained and in a light harvest. 

Here's a happy baby to make you feel better about snipping off fruit buds! Oi, that one was tough. Thankfully, you'll rest easy knowing that your bushes will be producing glorious fruit for you... soon. Just not this year! I hope this guide was easy for you to navigate and read. I am still in need of mulching my bushes and then pulling off the buds. Still bringing myself the muster to do it.

Are you planting new bushes this year? Do you already have blueberries? I'd love to hear about them! Let's start a conversation! (:

Tad's Linen Smock is c/o Conscious Clothing and you can make his bonnet with our knitting pattern here!

xoxo Kayla