Prune Blueberries Now- but Don’t Get Carried Away

Posted On February 18, 2013— Written By and last updated by Diane Lynch

Q: When and how do I blueberry bushes?

A: 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 blueberry shrubs can make a nice hedge or screen in the landscape. Besides having fruit in the summer, blueberries have attractive white or pink flowers in the spring and red to yellow foliage in the fall. Now that we are in late winter with spring just around the corner, now is the time to be winter 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 distance away from the base of the plant. It is ok and maybe even desirable to keep a few root suckers that have came 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 open 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 opening up the center, 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.
Along with removal of undesirable canes and thinning out canes to open up the plant, you will want to “head back” upright shoots to a desired height to keep the bushes from getting too tall.
Just-planted blueberry bushes should be cut back so that the plants do not flower in the first year to allow the plant to get established. For just-planted blueberry bushes, cut back approximately 2/3 of the top growth on bare-root plants and ½ on potted plants leaving only 1 to 3 of the most vigorous upright shoots. Remove any remaining flower buds, to keep the plant from flowering in the first year.
Be careful to not confuse flower buds with leaf buds. Flower buds will be large, plump, rounded buds located on the terminal 2 to 3 inches of the shoot. Leaf buds will be small, sharp pointed buds located at the basal part of shoots.
So if you have blueberries in your home garden, don’t forget that now is the time to prune blueberry bushes. Pruning will prevent the plant from becoming overgrown and will promote fruit production. Proper winter pruning will provide fresh blueberries that you can pick straight off the bush. For more information on growing blueberries, you can go to www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8207 to find the extension publication “Growing Blueberries in the Home Garden” (HIL 8207).

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• Blueberry Production and Pruning Workshop – Saturday, February 16th, 9 a.m. to noon at CEFS (Center for Environmental Farming System) Service Building located at 201 Steven’s Mill Road, Goldsboro, NC. Bill Cline, NC State Extension Specialist, will provide a short classroom presentation and then have an outdoor presentation. Participates are encouraged to dress warmly and bring hand pruners. Registrations is required and cost $10. CEFS is accepting registrations by contacting Lisa Forehand at 919-513-0954 or by e-mail lisa_forehand@ncsu.edu. This workshop consistently fills up every year, so register ASAP.

• Fruit Tree Training & Pruning Workshop – Saturday, February 9th, 10 to 12:30 p.m. at Central Crops Research Station at 13223 US Bus 70W, Clayton NC 27520. Mike Parker, NC State Extension Specialist, will provide an outdoor demonstration of how to train and prune fruit trees. This workshop is offered by Johnston County Extension Service. Participates need to register by calling Angie Faison at 919-989-5380 or by e-mail at angie_faison@ncsu.edu. 1 hour of pesticide credits (L, N, O, X) have been applied for.

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Jessica Strickland
Extension Agent
Horticulture
North Carolina Cooperative Extension
Wayne County Center
P. O. Box 68
Goldsboro, NC 27533
E-Mail: jessica.strickland@waynegov.com
Phone: 919-731-1525
Fax: 919-731-1511
https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/wayne