How to Plant Blueberries
A Permaculture Approach To Establishing Your Blueberry Patch
We are big fans of Blueberries in our house. No matter how many pounds we purchase and freeze every year, somehow they all disappear. That is why we decided to plant our own patch this year. The following article is our thoughts on how to use both permaculture and common-sensical bio mimicry to establish an optimal, abundant, and long-lived blueberry stand.
What Blueberry’s Need To Grow
If established correctly, Blueberries can be one of the most low-maintenance and pleasurable berries to grow. They are also incredibly long-lived bushes, ranging from 30-50 years. From a permanent agriculture perspective, they are gold.
As mentioned, to grow and live optimally, they must be established optimally.
1) Blueberries need good drainage –
A good rule of thumb to follow is: if it rains on Monday and water is still standing in your desired location by Wednesday evening, then do not plant a blueberry bush there.
That being said, there are some caveats to this general rule. A good permaculture blueberry stand design should begin with water handling. Do we need to increase water flow in this area via diversion swales to nurture and feed our bushes naturally? Or, do we need to slow down and “sink” any energetic water that flows over our design area?
Another important caveat is that blueberries have shallow root systems that easily dry. Deep rooted plants can easily pull moisture up from the subsoil to stay hydrated but shallow rooted plants like blueberries struggle in dry systems. Water availability is very important to maintaining a producing blueberry stand.
Permaculture must design for both resilience and permanence. Our temperate climate is tending toward periods of heat/drought followed by periods of cool/precipitation. Translated, our weather patterns are becoming accentuated. This means that we will have intense periods of heat followed by intense periods of precipitation. Therefore, when the rain falls, we need to capture it; slow it down; store it; sink it; hold it. In a sense, we need to pacify the precipitation into a form that our living system can permanently benefit from.
It is important to observe your design location and determine your water needs. During a rain event, stand in the rain and watch the water move through the topography. Get on your knees and witness the creative interaction between the soil, its many covers and the moving water.
Idea to mitigate standing water: orient your blueberry patch on contour. Then, swale the uphill side of your patch to force water sinkage and pacify water flow. Plant the swale in perennial and nitrogen-fixing shrubs and ground-covers, punctuating the design with fruit trees to help firm up the swale’s berms and soak up excess moisture. You can plant fast-growing chop-and-drop plants to aid in mulching in the years to come (Comfrey).
2) Blueberries need acidic soil –
Blueberries require soil with a PH between 4.5 to 5.0. It is best not to “fertilize” your soil to make it more acidic but, rather, to actually “turn” the soil into acidic soil by intensively amending it.
We have found that this is best achieved by combining Shredded Pine Bark Mulch, Leaf Mold and topsoil during the establishment process. We then add more leaf mold as the years progress to maintain the deep mulch and acidifying cover. You can also employ chop-and-drop methods to mulch your system if leave mold is hard to come by.
Idea to enhance soil acidity: dig a 4 foot x 4 foot x 1 foot hole to plant your blueberry bushes within. During the dig process, you can pile the removed dirt on the downhill side of the hole to form a miniature berm for water storage. Fill the hole with a mix of Shredded Pine Bark Mulch, Leaf Mold and some topsoil or compost. Plant your bushes directly into this medium. As blueberry roots grow outward and not downward, this acidic cocktail will provide the perfect PH for optimal growth while also acting as a mulch cover for weed suppression, moisture retention, and fungal growth.
3) Blueberries need room to grow –
Permaculture generally seeks to optimize living systems, whether those systems are human-based or entirely natural. In a sense, permaculture understands that living systems have an upper bound of productivity and abundance that cannot be “pushed.” This is one of the foundational permaculture principle—the difference between optimal and maximum yields. But more on this in another article!
Most high-bush blueberry bushes (low-bush bushes are wild types that are either grown at higher altitudes or far up north) reach optimum potential at 10’ x 10’. What is important to remember is that, wherever two blueberry bushes touch each other, no blueberries will grow there. It is, in the fullest sense, wasted space.
It does not take a mathematician (although that is what I technically am) to realize that planting blueberry bushes too closely lowers each of those bush’s optimal yield by nearly 20 – 50%. The math is simple: if a row of blueberries are planted too closely, the lateral sides of every single bush will not fruit optimally, depending on initial placement of the bushes of course. Although you will create a living hedge, it will be a hedge that produces significantly less food for your farm or family than you anticipate.
Food for thought: nature does not cram life into defined areas to maximize its fruiting potential. Not at least in a temperate climate. Look at the forest and its many layers of succession. For a seedling on the forest floor to truly live and grow, some tree already in either the upper or lower canopy has to die. It’s just that simple.
Idea to capture optimal yield: plant your blueberry bushes in rows that are spaced 15’ apart from each other and each bush within the rows no closer than 10’ apart. You will need to take into account topographical slope and sun-positioning to calculate the total space needed between rows, but this general equation should get you started.
4) Blueberries need sun –
This last point is quite simple. Make sure that your blueberry bushes receive at least 75% of the daily sunlight in your area. Morning through afternoon sun is preferred, as evening shade is tolerated well. Consider how tall your bushes will be at maturity and design with that in mind.
As with all well designed systems, start with deep observation and site understanding. Every design will vary and will require site-specific adaptation. Plant a diversity of supporting species within your blueberry patch to encourage pollinators, deter pests, provide sources of living mulches, and foster disease resistance. Below is a sample list of possible plants to establish within and around your patch: