The Second Year and Beyond....
Congratulations on a great first year! Did you enjoy watching the plant grow? How many new branches developed? Weren't the leaves brilliant and red last autumn? That's one of the things I love about blueberry bushes. They bloom spectacularly in the spring, give berries in the summer, and put on a blazing display come the fall. What's not to love?
Well, this year is the year you get to enjoy some of those yummy berries. But there is much work yet to do (I don't think of it as "work" but as a labor of love).
It's late February and the snow is still flying, the temperatures unpredictable and the thought of seeing anything green seems almost like a dream. Yet, late February is the time when you should apply your first of 3 or 4 fertilizer treatments for the year. Wait until the snow is melted and there is only brown soil or mulch showing around your bush. (if it snows on top of it that's alright). Then sprinkle the fertilizer-acid soil maker recipe (see below) in a 2-4 foot radius all around the plant. A good rule of thumb (literally) is to sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the recipe for every total thumb's worth of the bush's diameter. In other words, look at all of the bush's branching coming up from the ground. Estimate, if you put them all together, what the diameter would be. Typically, your first year will only be one "thumb's worth" so therefore you will apply only one tablespoon to the bush. (Remember what I said about over fertilizing!) You will do this fertilizing somewhere around the end of February, again in 3 weeks, and again in 3 more weeks. Then, wait until the blueberries are producing fruit and sprinkle for the last time this year. It is important when you fertilize that there is plenty of rain. If there is a dearth of precipitation you will want to supplement with your garden hose. Blueberries which get fertilized and have little water will be burned....and no, that is not a good thing. And one more thing: Never, ever fertilize after July. The fertilizer will stimulate new growth and that growth will not get mature enough to make it through the winter, thus damaging your plant's health.
The Fertilizer-Acid Soil Making Recipe
I have found over the years that the best way to produce healthy blueberry bushes which give you tons of delicious berries is to make sure that the soil is in the acidic range (4.5 pH). The bush also needs adequate and slow released nitrogen. I am sharing with you the recipe which we use on the farm. It works here, in western Illinois. Depending on where you are growing you may have to tweak the ratios. I use a 4:3:2 ratio of ammonium sulfate, (not aluminum sulfate!) ferrous sulfate, and elemental sulfur (in flour form). Depending on the vitality of the bush, I will forego the ferrous sulfate during the last application. Mix up the ingredients (they will be yellow when you are done) and sprinkle as needed (see above) - ideally right before a nice spring rain. When you are applying the fertilizer-acid soil maker, make sure that the wind is relatively calm.... sulfur in the eye is unpleasant to say the least! And if you are having trouble finding the ingredients, please contact me and I can happily mix you up some. For most folks with just one or two bushes, a peanut butter container of fertilizer-acid soil making powder will last several years.
Do NOT fertilize!!!!
The peat moss is sufficient fertilizer for the blueberry’s first year. The most common error folks make in planting blueberries is over fertilizing. You are always safer to under-fertilize than to over fertilize.
If you have pine needles, aged pine bark or other acid containing mulch, apply 3-4 inches around your plant in a 4x4 area. Do not use green mulch as it will leach out the nitrogen from your soil (and thus steal it from your plant). Water thoroughly. Blueberries need an inch of rain every week. One gallon of water is approximately one inch of rain for an area 12” x 12” – so depending on the size of your root system you will need to adjust accordingly.
Did I mention not to fertilize that first year???? Really, I mean it.
Keep weeds, especially grass, from competing with your blueberry bush by pulling routinely or using thick mulch.
Ok, now comes the tough part. The part that even I find a bit painful. All those beautiful blooms? The pretty pink and creamy white bluebells that your new plant is producing? Well, you get to remove them. Yes, every last one of them for the first year. Your plant cannot make blueberries and roots. It needs to focus on root development in order to be a vibrant fruit-producing plant. You will be grateful and thankful next year as you start enjoying the fruits of your labor. Literally.
Planting Care and Maintenance of Your New Blueberry Bush:
The First Year
Blueberries love acidic soil and around here that means we usually have to amend the soil or change it to an environment which is conducive to growing. Unless you already know you have a pH of 4.5-5.0 you will need to supply the soil with the needed ingredients to plant and maintain acidity.
Blueberries are quite tender their first year. You will want to dig a hole approximately 16-24 inches in diameter and about 1 foot deep (blueberries are surface eaters. They do not extend their roots deeply). Pour loose peat moss into the hole until it is even with the surrounding soil. Now, dump several shovels’ worth of soil which you just dug out of the ground to make the hole. Blend the soil and the peat moss until you have a nice mixture. Gently remove the blueberry plant from its container. Loosen the soil surrounding the roots. You do not want the roots tightly wound or bound up. Yet, the roots of blueberries are hairy and thin and do not like being disturbed much. So be gentle. Scoop out from your peat-soil-filled-hole, a container-equivalent sized hole. Place your blueberry plant in the hole; cover and fill in the edges with your fill, making sure that the water flow is away (not toward like a tomato plant), from the center of the plant.
Maintaining & Nurturing Blueberries