Propagating Blueberry Bushes

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A great question came in this week about propagating blueberries! First, what is propagation? The North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook defines propagation as the process of producing a new plant from an existing plant. Propagation can be broken down into two general types; sexual and asexual propagation. Sexual propagation is pretty simple, being reproduction through seeds. Two parents combine through pollination and fertilization to create offspring that is different from the parents. Asexual propagation, sometimes called vegetative propagation, uses plant parts from the parent plant to clone that plant. This can be accomplished by using stems, roots, and/or leaves to create new plants.

In the case of blueberries, and generally all fruit, we want to use asexual or vegetative propagation. The reason for this is that we want to clone the parent plant so that the new plant is “true to type”. This means that we are certain the offspring is the same as the parent plant.

When my youngest daughter was about four years old, she loved to eat apples (she still does). She always saved the seeds and wanted to plant them so she could grow apples in our backyard. While this is a great idea, it is not a very practical one. If we were to propagate those seeds, it would take 15 to 20 years for us to have apples! This is because the wood has to mature before it can produce fruit. The other problem is that we would have to wait that long to see what kind of apples we would be producing. You see, the fruit is determined by the cultivar but the seed is determined by both parents. Let’s say for example that we had a Granny Smith apple tree that was pollinated by a crab apple tree. The fruit would look and taste like a Granny Smith. But, what do you suppose the seed would make? I would like to think we could call that a Crabby Granny! All joking aside, we would have no idea how the fruit would look or taste because that would be determined by the cross of the parents.

The same can be said for blueberries. So how would we propagate them? Vegetative propagation of blueberries can happen in three different ways, semi-hardwood cuttings, hardwood cuttings, or through division. Semi-hardwood cuttings are the most used to propagate blueberries. Cuttings are taken from semi-hard new growth and then stuck in a growing media consisting of aged pine bark fines and sand. Semi-hardwood is the stage of new growth that is soft enough to bend without breaking. If the wood is too mature, it will break and if the wood is too succulent, it will break. So, like Goldilocks, we want it right in the middle. This type of cutting is usually taken somewhere around August 1st in our area of Eastern North Carolina.

Notice the blueberry suckers in the middle (red arrow). These can be severed from the mother plant during the dormant season using a sharp shovel. Immediately replant suckers in a container or prepared bed and prune the top 1/3 of the whip to allow roots to develop.

Notice the blueberry suckers in the middle (red arrow). These can be severed from the mother plant during the dormant season using a sharp shovel. Immediately replant suckers in a container or prepared bed and prune the top 1/3 of the whip to allow roots to develop.

Hardwood cuttings are taken during the dormant season (January to early February). Cuttings should be 18 to 36 inches long initially then cut into sections 4 to 6 inches in length from the base. Discard the upper quarter to one-third of the whip. These cuttings are then packaged in sawdust or peat moss and stored in a refrigerator to meet the chilling requirement until April when they are stuck in the rooting media until the following winter. Cuttings will be stuck in the media exposing only one bud and must remain under a mister or sprinkler until rooted.

Often, Rabbiteye varieties produce suckers. These suckers can be divided from the mother plant with a sharp shovel during the dormant season. Suckers can be immediately planted in a container or in the field to grow out. It is important to head the tops back to grow out for a season. Often the root system on suckers is not extensive enough to support the plant, as such it will need to grow for a season in place before producing fruit. Division is the least complicated method of vegetative propagation.

NC State Cooperative Extension provides unbiased, research-based, University information to you, the consumer or producer. If you have not visited your local Cooperative Extension Center, you may be pleasantly surprised by all of the information, workshops, and programming we offer! We will have an Extension Master Gardener SM Volunteer-led class coming up on Saturday, November 4th . Please call the office to register. We also have our Christmas Wreath Fundraiser
happening right now! Visit the Beaufort County Master Gardeners’ Facebook page or our N.C. Cooperative Extension, Beaufort County Center website for more information. This fundraiser will take orders until November 1st with wreaths arriving just in time for Christmas decorating on November 22nd .