The Magic Behind Big Fat Blueberries

We’ve been pruning our 4.4 acres of Drapers and Liberty blueberries the last two weeks. This is where the magic begins.

The view from our upper block of blueberries.

Social distancing isn’t difficult with this kind of work.

Each person pruning has his own row.

The ten-year-old bushes average 55,000 pounds of organic berries annually on the 6,000 bushes. Each year we start the season with careful pruning that promotes berry size and production.

Plump Draper Highbush blueberries ready for harvest.

We prune in the spring when buds swell to help us discern fruit buds from leaf buds. The flower buds form near the tips of second year shoots and are fatter and less pointed than leaf buds.

This bush produced these flower buds last year. This means that these fruit buds were set last summer on this wood when it was new. 

Tools for pruning blueberries include loppers, a hand pruner and a pair of gloves.

Use the loppers for cutting large canes, hand pruners for laterals and the gloves for pealing the twiggy branches off the bush.

We are looking for a bush with three attributes when we finish pruning. I use the acronym OIL to help me remember.

What wood should we remove to promote big berries this year and fruit next year?

“O” is for only 9-12 of the most vigorous canes grow from the base of the bush.

This bush has a nice balance of old and new canes growing from the base. This is called rotating the wood when you cut out the oldest canes and add young whips (one-year-old canes). These bushes will produce 30 years.

“I” is for interior of the bush that should be open to sunlight to promote fruiting wood for next year.

The open center of this bush will increase the growth of the new canes because of better air circulation and light penetration. This will improve fruit bud set for next year’s crop.

“L” is for no more than 5-6 strong fruiting laterals on each two year old cane.

The fruit buds produce fruit on last years growth that is one year old wood called laterals. Best fruit production is on 6-12 inch or longer laterals.

Let’s visit with the farmer to hear how he prunes a Draper blueberry bush.

“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”
― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Let’s review what we’ve learned. With your tools in hand, how will you prune this bush?

Look at the canes growing from the base of the bush. What would you remove?

Cut out dead, diseased, older unproductive wood. Then remove new canes in the center or growing across the bush.

Time to remove this cane.

Cut out low spreading branches near the ground.

A branch like this will be on the ground as soon as the berries begin to ripen.

With the hand pruners, remove the short, twiggy laterals and sections of unproductive growth. (Last year’s fruiting wood won’t fruit again this year, so cut off 6″ of the wood.)

Cut out laterals that are shorter than 6 inches.

The magic will happen with practice. Pruning blueberries requires balance. If you prune too hard, you’ll have fewer larger berries and more new wood. If you prune too lightly, you’ll have too many small berries and weak twiggy growth. If you prune just right, there will be a good balance between fruit production and growth of vigorous new shoots.

Those blueberries want to jump into my mouth!