I sometimes wonder whether the health benefits of eating blueberries outweigh the shock my system suffers at the checkout counter. Last year blueberries sometimes sold for $8 a pint. If you’re like me, and not willing to give up on making homemade blueberry pie in a buttery crust or bubbling blueberry crisp topped with whipped cream, the time might be ripe for you to start growing your own backyard blueberries.

For counsel, I turned to Vineyard blueberry farmer Susan Murphy of Chilmark. She has nearly thirty years of experience and willingly shares her wisdom – and more importantly – her mistakes. Island berry growers have sought her advice over the years, and she has guided many on the fundamentals of blueberry bush pruning, including farmers from Morning Glory and North Tabor farms, where blueberries are also grown and sold.

Murphy Blueberry Farm began in 1986 when Susan, who is also a furniture maker and the former Chilmark postmaster, and her husband Lynn, owner of Menemsha Marine Repair (now retired), purchased four hundred blueberry plants from a Massachusetts nursery. Mistake number one. “Don’t do what we did. Don’t buy four hundred. Two hundred would have been fine,” she says. And if mover Trip Barnes offers to get you a truckload of peat moss that might sit in your yard for years, she adds, don’t do that either.

Susan describes how they brought the bushes home from the off-Island nursery in an “unconventional” way – inside a retired sightseeing bus.

“We didn’t know one thing from the next,” Susan recalls. But she learned on the job. After digging four hundred holes, laying the drip irrigation, and watching the tiny plants mature, she had her first crop to bring to the West Tisbury Farmers Market in 1989. She sold blueberries there for twelve years, often selling out in about twenty minutes.

These days, she sells berries from her back porch at the farm and provides them to Chilmark Chocolates for their popular summer delicacy: chocolate-covered blueberries. She operates a U-pick business, by appointment (508-645-2883). The rest she freezes for a ready winter’s supply of this fruit that’s high in vitamins C and K, manganese, and antioxidants.

Murphy’s laws for growing blueberries

1. Know your options: lowbush versus highbush

Lowbush blueberries are the type of wild blueberries typically found all over New England, growing like a ground cover. Highbush plants – sometimes up to twelve feet tall – are woody with berries that are generally bigger. Both types are found on the Vineyard, along with huckleberries, dangleberries, and bilberries. This variety creates an extended wild blueberry–picking season from early July to early September. All – including the seedier, spicier black huckleberries – can be picked and cooked together.

blueberry bush
Vaccinium corymbosum, a native highbush blueberry, is flush with berries in August.

2. Buy at least two varieties

When you go to a nursery to buy blueberry plants, Susan suggests buying a minimum of two plants, and making sure they are two different varieties (such as Patriot and Bluecrop). “You must cross-pollinate to get fruit,” she emphasizes. If you have blueberries that don’t produce, she suggests buying two more plants in case cross-pollination is the issue.

3. Create a wide base and mulch

Highbush berries can be planted almost anywhere, Susan says. “Blueberries are very shallow-rooted....They like to be near wet areas, but you don’t want to have wet roots all the time.” Clear a circle under the plant, as wide as the outer branches. Blueberries “don’t compete well with grass or weeds,” she explains. A drip line placed in a wide circle around the plant is ideal, but not necessary. Otherwise, water at ground level, not from overhead, in the early morning. The best mulch, Susan has found, is sawdust, three to four inches deep and from a non-pressure-treated wood.

4. Fertilize in the fall

Fall is the best time for the yearly root feeding, when the ground is still warm and receptive to nutrients. For mature plants, four to six feet tall, Susan recommends a couple of cups of fertilizer. She uses North Country Organics Pro-Holly fertilizer, along with compost, which is the perfect pH for blueberries, according to Susan. Contrary to popular opinion, blueberry plants are “acid-tolerant” not “acid-loving,” and that’s why she doesn’t warn against liming, but suggests it only “every now and then.” In general, she says, “Blueberries are very forgiving.”

5. Prune in cold weather

Just as fruit trees require this step, blueberry bushes need pruning to produce a decent harvest, and the process must take place when temperatures are consistently below 42 degrees, says Susan. “Blueberries produce fruit on year-old wood,” Susan explains. “By pruning, you are continually renewing the wood supply. And in a sense, you are renewing the plant over and over again.” She notes that her best producing year was 2008, two years after the most thorough and professional pruning job she remembers doing. “I had more blueberries than I knew what do with.” In addition, pruning allows you to control bush height to make for manageable fruit picking. And like fruit trees, blueberry bushes need sun and air circulation – especially in the middle of the plant. Look for periodic pruning workshops at the Murphy farm, usually sponsored by the Polly Hill Arboretum.

6. Use netting

Call it the battle of blueberries versus birds: Placing netting over the plant just as berries start to ripen is another important step for a good blueberry crop. “If you want really sweet blueberries, you just really have to fight the birds for them,” Susan explains. “How many times do you hear people complain: ‘I had tons of blueberries, and then I went to pick them, and they were all gone’?” (I suspect she hears this complaint more than most.) After trial and error, she settled on lightweight nylon tulle, which she secures with clothespins. “Get green if you can,” she says. “I offer this [advice] to save years of experiments with tobacco netting and all sorts of other options.” Tulle can be found in fabric stores, on six-foot-wide bolts. One bolt yields about ten to twelve nets. Susan, however, hasn’t figured out how to curtail a new predator: the turkeys that get under the nets and help themselves. “I do not like turkeys,” she says, her eyes narrowing.

7. Give berries time to sweeten

Susan’s bushes start producing in mid July, but patience pays off. The longer a berry stays on the branch, even after turning blue, the sweeter it will be. “Highbush berries turn blue about ten days before they are ready to pick,” she says. “The way they get sweet is when the fruit is still on the bush – the action of the sun on the fruit.”

The following recipes were originally published with this article:

Blueberry Crisp

Honey-Blueberry Crepes & Sauce

Stacy's Happy Shake

Blueberry Cheesecake Parfaits