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We tried planting Blueberries last year, and went 0 for 3. We tried to follow the instructions:

  • Planted in a mix of 50/50 mulch and organic gardening soil
  • Watered infrequently but heavily (1/week, skipping if heavy rain)
  • Planted three bushes/trees about 10 feet apart (20 feet total, 3 different varieties)
  • Made sure the soil was somewhat acidic (though we didn't know about Magnesium, which we now do)
  • Planted them where they're in 3/4 or so sun - they should have direct sun at least 4-6 hours a day, more in the summer, and when they grow to their full 4-5 feet (the varieties I'm getting grow that high) will have closer to full sun.

Two of the three were smaller (probably about a year old when bought, maybe 12" tall) and didn't ever really do anything, and this year didn't produce leaves (so are presumed dead). The third was more like 2-3 years old (2' tall or so) and did make some baby berries that year, but never really made it back this year - it had some leaves, but it was very weak, to the point that a relative removed it by accident while weeding (but it clearly was too spindly and dry to make it anyway).

This year, we bought two more, hoping to plant them with more success. What should we do differently? The general soil in our yard is fairly dense and lower quality (just grass for years and years), so one consideration is removing a much larger amount - but how much? And replace it with gardening soil, or a sandier soil, or mulch/compost? And what else can we do to encourage root growth so the bushes can make it through winter - if that's realistic at this point in the year (or should we try wintering them indoors and plant them in spring).

We live in zone 5a/5b, which is supposed to be a good area for blueberries.

  • Roughly when did you plant the previous plants? Did the roots seem to have grown at all in the time you had them? – Alpar Aug 31 '14 at 10:04
  • More info please - not clear how you prepared the ground before you planted. Did you choose a free draining area, dig it all over well and then incorporate humus rich materials (composts, rotted animal manure, that kind of thing), then check the ph before planting? Did you choose hardy varieties of blueberry? – Bamboo Aug 31 '14 at 12:07
  • I need to know what the exact soil pH is. Also, where did you get the organic gardening soil? If the pH is wrong, and the soil doesn't have much nutrient-wise, (you didn't mention fertilizing) that might be part of it. – J. Musser Aug 31 '14 at 12:08
  • Another thing - You described the existing soil as, 'The general soil in our yard is fairly dense and lower quality', so drainage might be an issue. Blueberries hate bad drainage, and in that kind of soil, you have to make something of a mound for them. I think, if it's possible, definitely try to get them in the ground this fall. They overwinter much better in the cold. – J. Musser Aug 31 '14 at 12:12
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    @Sue It's not THAT complicated, though it would probably be a better idea to prepare a bed this year and plant in the fall or next year, if you have not got an excellent source of pre-made acid soils. Sulfur and time will get you there. – Ecnerwal Apr 15 '16 at 15:59
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Somewhat acidic is not nearly acidic enough for blueberries to be happy, for a start - pH between 4 and 5 is the recommended range for them. Bamboo & J. Musser are probably onto something with the drainage, as well.

I don't find blueberries particularly troublesome - they do like very acid soil, they are shallow-rooted, and they can be done in by over-feeding (probably more often than by under-feeding - the wild plants live in some rather challenging locations, plant-nutrition-wise.)

If you have plants now, they are much more likely to die inside than out over the winter.

I've had to relocate most of my established bed "suddenly" several years after planting. Sewage line needed to be replaced. Calling our soil heavy is an understatement - you could throw pots from it once you get beyond active growth. When the plants were dug up and the soil they were in, and they, moved elsewhere for the duration, you could still see the holes I'd hacked into the clay years before when I planted them - and they certainly hadn't put any roots to speak of into it. I just moved the regular soil off a section of garden, moved some of the acid soil, the plants, and the rest of the acid soil, and the heavy pine needle mulch over there - they all lived through the experience, and being moved back. I'm actually thinking I might do that again (or that I should have left them there, but hindsight is 20/20) since they will get more sun and be easier to net off out there than in their "edible landscaping" location near the deck, so we might actually get more edible out of them. If I net them now it just means the rodents get more of them .vs. the birds.

I'd be dubious about following "water heavily and rarely" advice soon after transplanting - the methods used for making new rooted cuttings are essentially to mist them whenever they get dry on the leaves; since transplanting upsets the roots, drying out excessively is a major concern (but not as much as for cuttings with no roots, of course)

Build your bed with a base of your soil, shaped to gently move water away - then build up a layer of nice humusy and quite acidic (add sulfur if needed) soil which is where the shallow blueberry roots will grow, and top off with a heavy mulch of something that will decompose and make more humus. Add more mulch and sulfur and some fully-finished compost (nothing remotely fresh and hot) each year.

Also this from the US Highbush blueberry council, but they are ammonium sulphate fans, which puts me off a bit. Personal prejudice and all that.

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    Thanks, that sounds very reasonable. Curious, why the opposition to ammonium sulfate? I had seen negatives about Aluminum sulfate, which I understand (aluminum being potentially harmful), but Ammonium sulfate seems harmless (Ammonium being a nitrogen source, and Sulfate reducing the pH). – Joe Sep 2 '14 at 1:42
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    Mostly, I guess I'm an organic-fertilizer-bigot. I have reasons (and I'm an engineer, so I've researched to my own satisfaction that they are real, not made up), but it's a long, messy discussion where few, if any, minds are changed from their position at the outset. It's worked for my plants for 19 years and counting. – Ecnerwal Sep 2 '14 at 3:21

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