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How to prune a blueberry bush: easy step-by-step instructions

By correctly pruning your blueberry bush(es), you will get a bigger, better, more beautiful berry harvest. But knowing how to prune a blueberry bush can seem a little daunting.

Pruning is one of those things that you hear is important, but it sounds too intimidating to learn how to do correctly. Or it slips to the bottom of the to-do list among everything else that’s going on. Or you convince yourself it doesn’t really need to be done, you’ll wait until next year. These are all common ways to beat around the blueberry bush and avoid pruning. We are here to give you that extra nudge to take out your pruners now and go at it. The pruning process isn’t hard, it doesn’t take long, and it is so worth it in the end!

When and why to prune a blueberry bush?

Late winter is the perfect time of year to prune. The plant is dormant so you won’t harm it, and dormancy also makes it easier to tell which branches are dead or diseased.

So why prune? When you give your bush a good trim, new growth is encouraged because less energy goes towards keeping old branches alive. And by encouraging new growth, your bush will give you more berries. This is because older branches produce many more leaves than they do berries, while young branches are heavy on the berries.

Pruning will also produce higher quality berries. Again, instead of the plant’s energy going towards keeping old branches alive, it will go towards the fruit itself. This will give you big and beautiful fruit.

How to prune a blueberry bush?

There are just five basic steps in the process of blueberry pruning.

Step 1: Understand the bush and take your time to survey it

Cane is the term for each stem of the bush which grows from the ground. Canes split into branches, which then produce side shoots. The side shoots are where the berries grow. While pruning, you may cut side shoots, branches, or canes, be prepared for all levels!

blueberry bush drawing
Illustration by University of Maryland Extension

Don’t rush into pruning. Study your plant. Notice how you can tell which parts are old or dead, if any have the beginnings of some disease, and in which directions the canes, branches, and side shoots are growing. Older ones will be lighter in color with lots of cracks. Newer ones will be smoother and darker in color.

Step 2: Perfect your pruning technique

Use clean pruners to minimize the risk of passing a disease to your plant, and use sharp pruners to create a cut that will heal easily.

When you make a cut, it should be close to the joint (where the part you’re cutting meets the thicker part below it). This will ensure that the remaining section of branch doesn’t rot, which could lead to disease. Do leave a tiny amount of space at the joint to allow for bud growth.

drawing showing where to prune blueberry bush
Illustration by Stark Bros

Step 3: Prune anything that is dead, old or diseased

No matter how many there are, any part of the plant that is dead or diseased needs to come off.

Even if it is a main cane, it is doing nothing positive for the health of the bush by staying. In this case, prune all the way to the ground. In general, canes that are older than six years old will not be creating productive branches and side shoots. If you see a cane that looks healthy, but a branch or side shoot that is dead, simply cut the dead part off at the joint.

Step 4: Prune branches that are overlapping or rubbing against each other

If you see overlapping branches, prune the branch that is growing more horizontal to the ground. By doing this, air flow increases, and stagnant air and disease are discouraged from hanging around the plant.

If healthy, crossing branches are mostly growing vertically and are not too close to each other, it is okay to leave them. You are mostly looking for branches growing very close to each other or those growing horizontally. When you notice branches rubbing against each other, definitely prune one, looking for the more horizontal branch. Rubbing branches can open up wounds, which are entry points for disease.

pruned blueberry bush with unripe berries
Photo by The Green Conspiracy

Step 5: Prune anything else that is not reproductively contributing to the plant.

This could include canes that are sprouting up at a bit of a distance from the main bush, creating more width and spindliness than upward growth for the bush. It could also include a branch that looks healthy, but is long and thin and doesn’t look like it would produce much fruit.

We are looking to only keep the strongest, most vertically oriented canes, branches, and side shoots. It will probably feel wrong to prune the amount that is necessary, but stick with it.

After pruning your blueberry bush

That’s it, you now know how to prune a blueberry bush.

At the end of all this pruning, you should only have healthy branches that are mostly growing up, and not sideways. It is okay if there are only a few left! The first time you do this, it can feel like you are massacring your plant. Or like you are giving it the too-short haircut that it never wanted. It takes time to trust the process. But once you see the flowers and then berries coming back better than ever, doubt will be replaced with confidence!

ripe blueberries on a tree
Photo by Carly Roland

 

If you have had your bush(es) for a while, the first prune may take a while. Doubt will be especially high because of the number of branches coming off. Also, be prepared for it to take a few years for the new branches to be big enough to produce fruit. Patience creates payoff, especially if you keep pruning as needed each winter. You will learn to have an eye for what’s dead, what’s cutting off air flow, and the precise spot to make the cut.

Throughout the first prune and all of those in the years ahead, just take your time and know that your plant is super resilient. It is a blueberry bush after all! A plant which survives extreme winters with temperatures down to -20°F (-29°C). You are just doing what Canadian winters do naturally! Stick with it, and before long you will have a very useful new skill. Oh, and your bush will be thanking you with boatloads of blueberries. Pie anyone?

For more information

Wondering what time of year to plant your bush, how much sun it needs, or what’s good for it as a companion plant? In our journal, we aim to answer these questions and more for blueberries and many other fruits, veggies, and herbs. Check out what The Green Conspiracy is all about for more information, and then get pruning!

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