Blueberries grow pretty well in Georgia. Rabbiteye blueberries are native to the southeast, so they’re well adapted to our climate. Let’s talk specifically about pruning blueberries.
Blueberries don’t need to be pruned every year to be fruitful. However, if you start doing some cane renewal pruning every year on a mature plant the bushes will be more fruitful and have more longevity. The ideal time to prune blueberries is late winter because the plants are dormant. February is late winter for us in the mountains. Plants in their dormant state are going to be less prone to infection or stress from the pruning.
Blueberry is a multi-stemmed bush. Each one of the stems that comes out of the ground is called a cane. Cane renewal pruning is removing old canes from the plant so that there is space for new canes to grow. Ideally, under cane renewal pruning you’ll remove old canes each year so that in five years all the canes on the plant will be completely different. Each year go through the plant and cut out the oldest canes that you find. Also, remove any diseased or dead canes. Ideally, you don’t want to remove more that 25% of the canes in a single year. If you have a blueberry bush that hasn’t been pruned for a couple of years it may take a couple years to get it back into shape. If you have a blueberry bush that hasn’t been pruned for many, many years cane renewal pruning probably isn’t going get the plants back into shape. In that situation, I’d recommend something that may seem very drastic, but is better for the plants in the end. Mow the bushes down to the ground. Mature plants will be able to take this hit, and put up new suckers, that turn into canes. This is going to give you fresh growth, and a new healthier plant. You’ll go without blueberries for a couple of years. Therefore, if you have several plants that need to be mowed, you could do a couple a year, until they are all back under control.
New plants should be pruned to have the healthiest plants. Prune back 2/3 of the top growth on bare root plants, and ½ of the top growth on potted plants. If the new plant has many canes prune out all but 1-3 of the best looking ones. You also don’t want a first year plant to produce fruit, so pick off any flower buds. If you prune plants like this the first year, the second year won’t need much pruning. In the second year pick off flower buds again, and remove any diseased canes. The third year, remove diseased canes, but you can leave the flower buds on vigorous shoots. The fourth year, the plant should be able to handle full crop, but if you have some weak looking canes, thin out the buds to prevent over fruiting, which can cause permanent bending of canes from the weight.
Each year after harvest is completed cut plants back so that they don’t become too tall. Tall plants are more difficult to harvest for people; bears and birds probably won’t have that same problem.
If you have questions about pruning blueberries, contact you County Extension Office or email me at Jacob.Williams@uga.edu.