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 to renew 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 Shears to cut small twigs and branches.
- Lopping Shears to cut larger branches and canes.
- 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!