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Pruning Blueberry Bushes

If you’ve had blueberries for some years now and have annually pruned out dead wood, a few older branches,  twiggy branches, cross branching, and in short opened your bushes to sunlight — Congratulations!  You are enjoying bushes that give you better yields and larger berries.

If you have new bushes in the ground this year —–now is the opportunity to being annual pruning and reap the reward of plentiful crops rather than average crops

If you have old bushes that have become overgrown masses of weak, leggy growth with small fruit  from neglected yearly pruning, take heart, its not to late torenew your bushes by pruning for bigger and better berries.

The Two Times to Prune and the Reasons

1. The recommended time to prune your blueberry bushes is during their dormant period in late winter.  That would be January through March depending on where you live.

The main reason late winter pruning is recommended is to avoid making the bush susceptible to injury that might be sustained in severe winter weather.

2. Many commercial growers prune immediately after harvest. They do this so they will not loose fruit buds that start forming after harvest through autumn.

I’d say if you live in an area where severe winters are not a problem, the time to prune would be immediately after harvest.

The Gardener’s Decision

Our winters in Virginia are for the most part not that severe. So it is tempting to prune now that my bushes are about finished. But —although I’m chomping at the bit to get out there and cut —  I’ll go with the majority this time and wait until February or March to do the main pruning.

New at Pruning?

If you’ve never pruned before — relax — it’s easier than you might think and you can’t really kill your bush even if you accidentally cut some things that shouldn’t have been cut.  The worse you can do is set fruit production back a little. So feel at ease —–you’ll catch on quickly.

Young bushes (1st, 2nd, and 3rd year) will need less pruning.  Older bushes need more.  Rabbiteyes, a heat-loving variety that is grown in USDA Zones 7 through 9, needs little pruning. Although pruning needs differ for each bush and variety, the basics of what to look for and what to cut are the same for all.

Keep this page bookmarked or print it out and refer every year to the basics it gives for pruning.  It will be easy for you to determine what needs doing.

Before You Begin

You’ll need some tools. (When following the links below to see the specific tool be sure to click on Garden Tools>Pruning & Lopping Shears to see a greater selection of both Felco and Corona pruning tools for every price range.)

  • Pruning Saw to cut canes that are larger than 1 inch.

You want clean cuts, so keep your tools sharp.

Disinfect after pruning diseased wood by swishing the “business end” of the tool in a 10% bleach/90% water solution and then dry.

One of the Most Important Things to Remember Before You Cut

Your berries for next summer will be produced on branches that grew new this summer.  Keep this in mind before you cut. Be careful not to cut away more than 1/2 of the new growth.

Put yet another way: yield decreases anytime there is the absence of new growth on which flower buds can form.

How to Tell the Difference in the Age of Canes

If you haven’t been paying attention to the wood in your bush, take some time to do so before you start.

  • Most always, older wood will be larger in diameter, more of a grey color, and rougher to the touch. (It should be very obvious what’s old.)
  • Newer branches will have more of a reddish tinge. (Basically the thicker they are the older they are.)
  • This years growth will be mostly green.

Pruning New Bushes(1 to 3 years of age)

Usually when you order blueberry bushes they are already a year old when you get them.  Your first year with them is usually their second year.

There is not a lot of pruning to be done to a second and third year bush.  You mainly want to ensure that the bush has good structure in its early years, making it a lot better as it ages.

Here’s what you do:

  • When you plant, remove any dead, damaged or older twiggy growth from the base of plants.  You want stronger, more prominent canes to provide the structure to your bush.
  • Prune out any branches that rub against another or cross another or look like they will when they grow a bit longer.
  • Prune at least 1/3 (up  to 1/2) from the top of new bushes the first winter.  That should leave the canes about 10 to 12 inches high on a two year old bush.  I feel this is unnecessary for a dwarf variety like Sunshine or for Rabbiteye varieties.

I’ve always seen it recommended that you remove all blossoms for two years (at least the first) to prevent fruiting. This is suppose to encourage strong growth, although I have to say that I have never done this  (mainly because I get into other things and forget about it) and my plants still have strong growth.

How to Recognize Flower/Fruit Buds

Buds for next year’s fruit will form in late summer through early fall and will be easily visible on one-year-old wood in late winter. They will form at the end of twiggy spurs of side branches on this new growth from the past season.  These buds will be larger, plumper and rounder than the pointed leaf buds.

Overproduction of Fruiting Berries Can Equal Small, Bitter Berries

When your branches overload with fruiting buds, the results can be small, bitter berries. This happened on one of my bushes this year and was especially noticeable towards the end of fruiting.  To avoid this in the future I’ll prune the shoots so they don’t have more than five or six buds each. (Obviously, this has to be done in winter after the buds have formed so you can see them.)

Maintenance Pruning – What You Want to Remove

The main idea for maintenance pruning is to thin out the dead, old and rubbing branches to encourage good form and new growth.

It is to this end that you remove the following:

  • Dead, diseased, or damaged wood   (This can be removed at any time.)
  • Any cane that is rubbing against another. (If you have bushes growing next to each other and their branches are intertwined you need to prune so they will not cross each other — just as you would do if it were one bush.)
  • Any cane that interferes with air movement and sunlight getting to the center of the bush.
  • Weak twiggy growth at the base and small sucker shoots. (Can be done anytime of the year.)
  • Any other weak or twiggy branches.  As mentioned with pruning younger bushes, you want stronger, more prominent canes to provide the structure for your bush.
  • Branches that will touch the ground when they bear fruit. (The fruit will be more subject to soil borne disease and insects.)
  • Branches that will be shaded.
  • Wood that is unproductive.

Removing Unproductive Wood

In a bush 3 years or older,  you will want to focus on removing the unproductive wood. As the bush ages, strive to have a balance of branches that are 1 to 5 years of age. Eventually, the entire crown will have been renewed giving you a bush that has vigorous wood, is open to sunlight, and bears more and better fruit.

Each year (in bushes 3 years or older) remove the 2 oldest, thickest branches near ground level or to a strong new side shoot.  (These are your most unproductive canes.) Removing them will stimulate new growth. It is important to be constantly renewing your bush and maintaining the most productive and vigorous stems.

How to Properly Cut Out Unproductive Older Canes

  • Cut Highbush varieties to near ground level. Don’t cut to soil level, but just above so that moisture and soil don’t come in contact with the wound and cause problems.
  • With Rabbiteye varieties prune old canes 6 to 12 inches above ground. New canes will be forced to develop from stump suckers.
  • If you grow the dwarf variety Sunshine, as I do, it is considered a high bush variety.

How Many Crowns to Keep from This Season

Keep no more than 2 new canes that grew from the crown this season.  These 2 canes will act as replacements for the older canes you removed.  When choosing which 2 to leave, think in terms of which will best distribute the fruit more evenly.

How to Cut Canes that Shoot Up Higher than the Overall Height of the Bush

Prune back the length of branches that are too long.  Some young canes may grow very high — higher than the overall height of the bush.  Make the cut at a bud going in a direction away from the center of the bush and cut them back to 4 to 6 inches below the overall height. This will stimulate side branching which increases the potential for more berries.

Pruning Heavily One Year Without Continuing Annual Maintenance Causes Problems

If you prune heavily one year, after not pruning on a regular basis, young canes will be produced in great numbers.  That becomes a problem only if you don’t continue to prune.  The canes would age together and become unproductive at the same time.  Then if  you wanted to prune out these unproductive canes you would have to remove almost the entire bush. You would not have enough young growth present to give you fruit the following season. (Remember, berries are borne on wood that was new in the previous season.)

Lighter Pruning, Better Yields, and Bigger Fruits Come with Consistent Annual Pruning

By following a regular schedule of maintenance pruning every year your bushes will have fewer canes and thus require less pruning.  They will be open to sunlight which increases the fruit bearing area of the bush.  Overall you will enjoy greater yields and larger berries.

Here’s to your success!

25 comments to Pruning Blueberry Bushes

  • Beppy White

    Thank you so much. The information about pruning blueberries is wonderful and so thoroughly explained. You did a great job.

  • Theresa

    Hi Beppy,

    I was glad to hear from you and get your input on the post. Thought I would never finish writing it! I wanted to leave nothing to guess about, so the fact that you thought it was so thoroughly explained really meant a lot to me. Thank you for letting me know what you thought.

    Best wishes,
    Theresa

  • We have bought a property with old blueberry bushes. The bushes were not trimmed recently and the main canes are 2″ diameter… they are producing well, even taste good when the new owner (me) picked too often..(everyday) I do not know the variety of bush. but it about 8 feet tall.. with lots of new canes (or as I mistakenly called them suckers.. The oldest wood has lichen on it and the new canes are reddish.. We have 7 bushes, lost one the 1st year due to a huge ant mound at the bottom.. I do not know exactly how or when to prune, but feel like it would be best in Jan or March.. our coldest months. in south MS.. You have explained it well, except, for how to propagate my own plants. any help you give will be appreciated. Thank Goodness for people like you… Barbara

  • Theresa

    Hi Barbara,

    First of all – congratulations on your new property and a special congratulations on having blueberry bushes already on the property. That puts you way ahead. And don’t worry about picking too often. The more you pick the berries, the more they will give you. If you don’t pick, the bush slows down production. So pick as much as you can!

    It sounds like you have a high bush variety and you will want to trim the 8 foot canes to a height more comfortable for picking.

    If the oldest wood is 2″ in diameter it probably needs to be taken out. If you don’t take the old canes out now, you will certainly need to do it next year.

    There is a lot of information in this post, so I would suggest reading it again to help you with your decisions on which canes to prune. I know you will do fine.

    I don’t know what your weather is like in Mississippi, but if severe winters are not a problem, I would prune the bushes now before the buds start to form. Otherwise, you would be correct in waiting until after the threat of severe cold has past in late winter.

    Blueberries can be propagated by taking cuttings from your existing plants in the spring. But I think the easiest way is to transplant young shoots coming up from the adult bush in the spring. (This is called root division.) Dig about 5 inches away on all accessible sides of the shoot. Slide spade under shoot and pull it free. Transplant. Water and keep the soil from drying until you see signs of new growth.

    I hope I have understood your concerns correctly and that this will help you.

    Wishing you every success and happiness at your new property.
    Theresa

  • Sandra

    Hi Theresa, I had two bushes that did not bloom this year. My others did fine – nice yields. Both are in the same location of my garden. I have a small yard, so the distance between the ones that did well and these ones is only about 20 feet. They look healthy and have new growth. Any ideas?

  • Theresa

    20 feet can make a big difference, Sandra. But I need a lot more information in order to even make a judgement. For example: How old are the ones that didn’t bloom? Same age as the others? Did you prune last year? Is other vegetation growing close by? Do they get enough water? Are they mulched? etc.

  • Anna

    What winter temperatures do you consider severe? I live in southern Michigan and am considering pruning now, as I won’t have much time to prune in Feb. and March. Some of the branches are bending over as they are too long. I am concerned that if we get a lot of snow that the snow may harm the bushes. Also, the last two seasons the berries lacked taste and sweetness as compared to previous years. Could this be due to soil acidity? These bushes are 15+ years with some pruning over the years. What are your recommendations? Thanks for your time.

  • Theresa

    Hi Anna —
    I take “severe” to mean more intense or harsh than normal. In Virginia that would be lots of snow, ice and wind more than once or twice and lasting more than a week.
    I’m sure living in Michigan — you’ll have a different take on that.

    But basically it’s wind and ice and severe cold (maybe below 25 degrees) that causes damage to shrubs and bushes.

    I think there are times that you just have to do what needs to be done — no matter what is considered the right time. If you feel that you won’t have the time to prune the bushes at regular pruning time —- do it when you have to and can. (There have been so many times over 35 years of gardening that I’ve had to do that.)

    More than likely your bushes will be fine if you prune now. If they suffer damage — well then — you did what you could. I doubt very seriously that you would kill the bushes. If they were to die — I doubt it would be due to pruning — but rather unusual conditions.

    Regarding your question about soil acidity making the berries lack taste and sweetness compared to previous years —-
    Everywhere you look you see that blueberries are suppose to just love acidic soil. Some folks go so far as the say that blueberries will not produce in anything but acidic soil. Well — that I know to be incorrect because my soil has been 6.7 for years and years and I get wonderful crops of berries. (My bushes are about 12 years old — maybe a little older)

    Bottom line — I don’t think it’s the soil ph that’s causing the berries to be bitter.

    I would suggest that you mulch the bushes heavily with leaves and then cover with pine or straw — if you are not already doing so. This will feed your bushes and keep needed moisture in.

    The bitterness of the berries could have been caused by any number of variables including —- drought at a time the bushes needed moisture the most —– or maybe they didn’t have enough good organic matter in the soil to feed them.

    I’ll be very interested in learning what you do and how it effects your bushes and berries. I’d appreciate your making a note to let me know what the outcome is so everyone can benefit.

    I hope this has helped you Anna.
    Theresa

  • Chip

    I have inherited two rows of blueberry’s 80 feet long and now about 12-14 feet high. I have tried to get out all the vines that were choking them, and have got that about done. now, how much should I trim? they are still producing well. but, the bushes are near 30 yrs old. I don’t want to loose my berries. also, they have never been fertilized or pruned. my father-in-law planted them and just let them grow.
    Should I be putting in some other bushes to tale there place?
    Thank you,
    Chip in Alabama

  • Theresa

    Hi Chip,
    WOW! is what came to mind when I read the magnitude of your rescue mission!

    Glad you got out all the vines. Blueberries do NOT like competition and other roots will eventually choke them out if allowed to remain.

    If they were mine I would trim them to 5 feet.

    It’s late in the year so you’ll loose some of next years crop since berries for next summer would be produced on branches that grew from the canes this summer. Just keep that in mind next season and don’t be discouraged by it.

    Read my post over again. There’s a lot there and you just want to read and watch your berries and gain a good understanding about what is going on with them. I think you’ll do very well with these.

    I would mulch them heavily after the ground is nice and moist from winter. And then keep them mulched heavily. And keep root competition away — as you are already doing.

    One word of warning — you will hear or read lots of advice on blueberries. Folks will tell you to do this or that or fertilize with this or that. I think the one thing you have to keep in mind with your berries that your father-in-law planted — is that he let them grow. And that just about what blueberries like.

    He did nothing else and obviously had great success with his berries.

    The only thing I would do differently — is mulch heavily after the soil is moist from winter rains etc. And then keep it mulched.

    Watch the plants — read this post numerous times — learn your berries. You’ll do great.

    One favor please — keep me posted on how you’re doing.
    Good luck!
    Theresa

  • Anna

    Hi Theresa,
    You asked me to let you know what I did with my blueberry bushes and how it worked out. I pruned somewhat heavily after I got your response in late November. The bushes were loaded,sweetness did improve, but not quite as much as I hoped. I am wondering if the Jersey bushes that produced smaller then normal with less sweetness is due to the decreased sunshine. The trees in the vacinity have gotten taller and I didn’t think of that until I started looking around this summer. So I’ll be doing some tree triming as well this fall. I’m am planning on doing some vigorous pruning very soon and mulching with some pine needles. My pH was lowered somewhat, however I don’t think that was my problem. My hope is to get some healthy bushes with sweet, tasty and decreased yield blueberries next year.

  • Theresa

    Thank for the report Anna. Keep up the good work!
    Theresa

  • Susan

    Thank you for the very clear direction. I have 2 little bushes on my Brooklyn balcony that yielded terrific fruit over their first summer and thrived despite the wind that whips up the street and through the balcony from the East River. I was ready to prune in the fall and will keep my clippers away a while longer, thanks to your guidance.

  • Theresa

    Susan, I think it’s absolutely wonderful that you have 2 bushes on your Brooklyn balcony that yield terrific fruit!! Congratulations!
    What you’ve done will be an encouragement for many others.

    As I stated in the post many commercial growers prune in the late summer and early fall so that they won’t prune away any fruit for next year. As I mentioned in the post, the main reason late winter pruning is recommended is to avoid making the bush susceptible to injury that might be sustained in sever winter weather.

    Thanks for commenting Susan and letting us know about your balcony bushes. Keep us update. We’d love to know how they continue.
    Theresa

  • Marie

    Hello Theresa,
    Thank you for the article, it looks like it will be most helpful!
    Not far from us there is an abandoned blueberry farm that is now on reclaimed state land. It’s location is only revealed by word of mouth and on Saturday mornings pickers will arrive in droves. The patch is the biggest I have ever seen around here. I would say its roughly 120-150 acres of blueberries and has been abandoned at least 30-40 years, if not longer. When viewed from above on Google earth the bushes look like tidy rows and you can see the sections and divisions of paths. On the ground its another story. We have a particular area we pick each year and this year I started pruning out of sheer desperation. The bushes are huge, towering high in the air and tangling all together; in most places you just have to take a deep breath and wade in. Amazingly they are always loaded with berries but they have gone hog wild for so long that the size of them is staggering. Many places you have to creep bent over under arches of berries to find a spot to pick.
    I want to trim back our area but frankly I am a bit at loss how to start. I pruned so that we have some semblance of paths in that area, but I think I need to use a pruning saw and start removing old and dead wood. The base of most bushes are around 3 feet across, some a little less, some a lot more. My questions is where do you start on bushes that old and large? With the dead stuff first?

  • Theresa

    Sounds amazing! I’ll bet the blueberries are wonderful!
    And yes – I’d start with the dead stuff first.
    Theresa

  • Holly

    I live in western WA. Apparently I did something wrong when I pruned last year. Lots of new shoots this year but no berries!
    I would love to get berries next year.
    My bushes (8 of them)are over 20 years old; 4 @ about 6 yrs old and the new “pink lemonade” which is only about 2 years old.
    How/when and what should I be cutting off this next winter?
    Thank you.

  • Theresa

    Holly,
    Berries for next summer will be produced on branches that grew new THIS summer. If you cut all that new growth away — you won’t get berries the following year. As I said in the post, cut away NO MORE THAN 1/2 the new growth — IF you need to cut any at all.
    That’s stated in the post under One of the Most Important Things to Remember Before you Cut.

    When you prune bushes you want to remove any dead, damaged or older twiggy growth, and unproductive canes from the base of the plants. Also, prune out any branches that rub against another or cross another or look like they will when they grow a bit longer.

    The post gives all the details of what to remove.

    Times to prune are listed under The Two Times to Prune and the Reasons.

    I also tell you How to Tell the Difference in the Age of Canes.

    Your 2 year old pink lemonade bushes probably do not need pruning.

    All the details you need to be successful with pruning your blueberries is in the post. I know it’s a lot of information, but just take your time and go back through the post until you totally understand what you need to do. Make a few notes to yourself to take with you when you get ready to prune the bushes.

    Good luck.
    Theresa

  • Patricia

    I live in Michigan. I have a row of blueberry bushes about 25ft. long.
    Two winters ago a bad ice storm pruned my bushes for me.Actually it was the large branches from an elm tree that actually did the pruning.They have now come back fairly well.I’ve had the bushes for about 12years. My question is, after all these years do you know why I am getting morel mushrooms in the garden? I’m not complaining, I just a little confused by it.

  • Theresa

    Patricia, although I don’t know the specifics, I do know that when conditions are right – mushrooms appear.
    They’re nothing to worry about. I usually hit them with my handtool when I see them so they won’t send out spores to make more.
    Theresa

  • Patricia

    I was very glad to hear your opinion on the ph in your garden. Most of my bushes look great,but I’ve never been able to get the ph down to where everything I’ve read say it should be. I guess I won’t worry about it anymore. I’ve been able to get it a little below 6.
    Like I said, most of my bushes look great, but I have a couple that are 12 years old and they have never had more than a couple of branches on them. They do produce berries, but they are “scraggly” looking bushes. I was wondering if it would help if I tried pruning them back almost to the ground. Do you think that they might come back in better shape or would it kill them? Your help is really appreciated.

  • Theresa

    You’ll have to try it to know Patricia. If they’re Highbush varieties cut them just above ground level. If they’re rabbit-eye varieties cut about 6 to 12 inches above ground level.

    Think about removing the oldest canes and lightly pruning any new growth.

    Re-read this article and think about how it might pertain to your bushes.

    I know what you mean about some bushes looking scraggly. I had two that looked that way for at least 15 years. And they stayed short. This year they look fabulous.

    One of my best producers looks scraggly looking this year, but has what appears to be a huge crop of blueberries on it. I think I should have taken out more of the older branches last year.

    Good luck with yours Patricia! Let me know what happens.

    Theresa

  • NANCY YOUNG

    Thank you for your great article. I have bought a farm with about 300 blueberry bushes included. There is grass and weeds growing all around the bushes which I would like to remove and then mulch to help keep the area weed free. The bushes are over 20 years old. The crowns of the bush look more like a trunk with canes coming out of it than a bush. If I mulch can I mulch all around the trunk/base so the base is covered? Would this cause insects to habor? Or would this provide protection?

  • Theresa

    Nancy, I would not mulch the trunk itself. That needs air. Mulch around the trunk so the roots will be well mulched. Good luck with these bushes! Sounds like you might have some fantastic berries.
    Theresa

  • Clark

    I love blueberries and have been planning to plant them for a good while. I have a hillock behind our house that has suitable soil, so we’ll see what we can do.

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