When Can I Prune My Blueberry Bushes?

— Written By Mary Hollingsworth and last updated by

Blueberries are a great plant to have in the home garden. Besides having fruit in the summer, blueberries have attractive white or pink flowers in the spring and red to yellow foliage in the fall. Now that we are in late winter, with spring just around the corner, now is the time to prune blueberry bushes before new growth emerges.

When pruning blueberry bushes, you should prune to where the bush is narrow at the base and open in the center. While pruning, remember to take a step back occasionally to make visual observations of the plant to keep from getting carried away while pruning. Most of the smaller stems and canes can be pruned with hand pruners, while for your larger sized stems you will need to use a pair of loppers or a pruning saw.

Of course, the main objective when pruning blueberry bushes is to increase fruit production. The first step that should be taken when you begin pruning is to take out any dead canes. These canes are not producing any fruit and provide a great location for pests to enter into the plant. Dead or dying stems will be light gray in color, while healthy, living stems will be brown in color.

Over time blueberry bushes will form many root suckers, which are stems that come out of the ground from the roots. On mature bushes, many of these root suckers will be away from the main center of the bush. You want to prune out these root suckers, especially the ones that are a distance away from the base of the plant. It is okay and maybe even desirable to keep a few root suckers that have came up within the base of the bushes. The root suckers within the base of the plant will be new growth that will over time replace older canes.

The center of the blueberry bush should be open to allow for sunlight and good air circulation throughout the plant. Remove canes that are preventing the center of the bush from being open in order to open up the center of the shrub. Along with opening up the center, be sure to prune out any stems that are touching or crossing each other. In other words, if there is a cane or branch that is growing in a direction opposite of what the other stems are growing, prune out that stem.

You should remove any shoots that you would think would touch the ground when loaded with fruit in the summer. Don’t be too concerned about removing too many fruit buds when pruning, because pruning will be helpful in thinning out some fruit buds in order to produce larger quality fruit.

Along with removal of undesirable canes and thinning out canes to open up the plant, you will want to “head back” upright shoots to a desired height to keep the bushes from growing too tall. Just-planted blueberry bushes should be cut back so that the plants do not flower in the first year to allow the plant to become established. For just planted blueberry bushes, cut back approximately two-thirds of the top growth on bare-root plants and half on potted plants leaving only 1 to 3 of the most vigorous upright shoots. Remove any remaining flower buds, to keep the plant from flowering in the first year.

Be careful, you don’t want to confuse flower buds with leaf buds. Flower buds will be large, plump, rounded buds located on the terminal within 2 to 3 inches of the shoot. Leaf buds will be small, sharp pointed buds located at the basal part of shoots.

So if you have blueberries in your home garden, don’t forget that now is the time to prune blueberry bushes. Pruning will prevent the plant from becoming overgrown and will promote fruit production. Proper winter pruning will provide fresh blueberries for the coming season. Please refer to the following link for more information on growing and pruning blueberries bushes. www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8207.html

For more information contact me, Mary Hollingsworth, Extension horticulture agent, at the Extension Center, by phone at 910-875-3461, or by E-mail at Mary_Hollingsworth@ncsu.edu.