Blueberry Heirlooms – Carrying on the family line

For the last few years, Maria’s parents had been toying with the idea of moving from their home in western PA.  While they had lived in their house for almost 30  years, had raised their family there, and still had a lot of extended family in the area, all of the kids had since moved out and started their own lives in different parts of the northeast US leaving them with a pretty empty nest.  Eventually, the pull of their children and 5 grandkids that had been added to the mix drove them off of the mountains outside of Altoona, PA.  In March of 2014, they moved within 5 minutes of our house.  We had long imagined welcoming them into their new home with a great celebration, parades and fanfare.  However, as fate would have it, we instead ushered them into this new chapter in their life with a wonderful stomach virus, which we generously shared with everyone who came within breathing distance of us.  Despite that non-ideal beginning, we have truly loved every minute of having them closer to us, though we know that the move was tough for  them.

Among the things that were difficult for Maria’s parents to leave behind when they moved were 6 blueberry bushes that they had maintained in their backyard.  Passed down from Maria’s grandfather, these bushes had been in the family for more than 50 years.  After being in their yard for more than 15 years, they had only recently reached peak production.  The family had really enjoyed the pleasure of having gallons upon gallons of fresh blueberries in the summer and frozen surplus all winter long.  It seemed a crime that they would need to leave them behind, but we were struggling with finding ways to transport them safely across the state.  Maria’s uncle tends a commercial scale blueberry operation, and advised against trying to uproot the bushes entirely, as they could easily die upon transplant.  Ultimately, we ended up with the idea of propagating the bushes by taking “cuttings” (short branches of last year’s growth).  

Neither of us knew anything about propagating blueberries, but thanks to the internet, we found about 1,000 ways to do it.  I settled on one method that fit our system the best, though we did make some adaptations.  Luckily, their move date coincided well with the appropriate timing for taking cuttings with this method (late March), so on the night before they moved, I called Maria’s dad and asked him to grab me some twigs.  The next day, he delivered to us enough cuttings to start 18 blueberry bushes.  Here is what we tried.

  • Instead of using a 4′ x 8′ propagation bed recommended at the linked site, I instead opted for 18 individual 6″ plastic flower pots
  • We filled each pot with sterilized sphagnum peat moss (post-game note: make sure that you pre-wet peat moss.  I did not, and it is absolutely hydrophobic until it is fully wetted…added a couple hours of rework)
  • I cut the blueberry branches into lengths of ~4″-6″. selecting those that had the best buds
Blueberry cutting

Blueberry cutting

  • Each cutting was then inserted into the filled pots, leaving 2-4 buds and ~1-2″ of branch above the soil, being careful that the branch did not contact the bottom of the pot, and that the top of the buds did not extend beyond the top of the pot. 
  • Each pot was then covered in saran wrap, which was pulled taut and fastened with rubber bands
A mini blueberry greenhouse

A mini blueberry greenhouse

  • These pots were then put into seed trays, soaked with water, and placed into the greenhouse in early April.  They are watered every couple of days by adding water to the bottom of the seed trays, which is then taken up by the pots.
  • In mid-April, the pots were supplemented with a rooting stimulant.   While not exactly organic, it received very high ratings for success rate.  For such an important task, I was willing to make a compromise, knowing that there would be no residual of this treatment when the plants start producing in 3-5 years.
  • At the end of May, many of the plants had sprouted leaves, and a few even started a bud or two.  I checked some of the cuttings for roots, but the ones that I had checked didn’t show any signs of them yet.  At this point with the weather warming up, they were starting to get a little baked out in the greenhouse, so I moved them to the shaded area under our deck.
A hopeful sprout in mid-June

A hopeful sprout in mid-June

With any luck, we will get at least 8-10 plants from the original 18 cuttings, giving our kids (and hopefully many generations to come) the opportunity to enjoy blueberries from the same plants as their great-grandparents did.  Hopefully, there will even be enough surplus plants that we can give a few to Maria’s parents and siblings so that they too can carry on the family blueberry heritage.   If you have any additional tips for starting blueberries from cuttings, let us know!!!