Last Call for Blueberry Pruning

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The timing for blueberry pruning is almost over. The recommended period is from November through March. Our unusually cold temperatures followed by warm days has the plants already flowering but go ahead and prune now.

Flower buds are readily visible during winter pruning, and it is tempting to leave too many. This is a mistake! Many home gardeners object to removing flowers. Yield reduction via flower bud removal always occurs when proper winter pruning is done. Expect to remove at least a third of the flower buds during pruning because overloading the bush with fruit in one year will stress the plant and cause reduced yields in following years, and will eventually require even more severe pruning to bring the bush back into production.

Follow these steps to prune now.

STEP ONE: Define the crown. Pruning starts at the ground, not at the top of the bush. Visualize a circle 12 to 18 inches in diameter around the crown of the bush, and remove ALL shoots of any age that have emerged from the ground outside the circle. This narrows the base making harvesting easier.

STEP TWO: Remove low-angled canes and crossovers. Low-angled canes that are too close to the ground are undesirable because the fruit is more likely to contact the ground. Remove these low-lying branches, and also any canes that angle through the bush (crossovers). Remaining will be a narrower bush with mainly upright canes.

STEP THREE: Open the center. If needed, remove one to three large canes from the center of the bush to reduce crowding, improve air circulation and phase out older canes. Old canes to target for removal are larger and grayer in color, and are more likely to be covered with a fuzzy growth of foliose lichens.

STEP FOUR: Thinning and heading back. As a blueberry cane ages, it branches repeatedly, resulting in smaller and smaller diameter lateral twigs in successive years. If left unpruned, this results in excessive numbers of unproductive, matchstick-sized shoots, each with a few tiny berries. To avoid reaching this stage, thin canes by making cuts to selectively remove clumps of twiggy, brushy-looking, matchstick-sized laterals. At this time also cut (head back) any long whips or canes that are too tall.

These basic hand-pruning steps can be used with any blueberry bush. Every cultivar has a slightly different growth habit, and only experience will tell you how to manage each. Some cultivars produce too many new shoots from the ground and require a lot of thinning, while others are less prone to sprouting. Your goal should be to have a multi-trunked bush with strong canes of all different ages emerging from the ground, so that as each older cane is removed, a younger cane is already there to replace it.

More details and illustrations are available at:

https://growingsmallfarms.ces.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Pruning-Blueberrries-25JAN14.pdf?fwd=no