A few readers have recently reached out to me and asked if I knew how to save their dying blueberry bushes. While I had an idea of some likely causes, I did some more research to learn more. Here’s what I found.
Blueberry bushes typically die from improper watering, nutrients, or climate. However, transplant shock, pests, and diseases can also cause it. For best results, only water when the soil is dry, apply compost, and plant in USDA zones 4-7. Once the source of stress is reduced, the blueberry plant should recover.
So, while blueberry bushes can die for several reasons, how can we tell which issue is occurring, how can we fix it—and can blueberry bushes even be saved in the first place? Let’s take a closer look.
Can Dying Blueberry Bushes Be Saved?
Dying blueberry plants can be revived if you first find the proper issue and apply a timely solution. The hard part is finding out which issue is affecting them. However, a good approach is to start with the possible issues based on the symptoms and try solutions starting from the least invasive to most invasive.
The reason why we want to start with the least invasive solution first is to minimize the stress your blueberry bush gets. For example, if we’ve narrowed down the possible issues to a lack of water or drainage, it’s much easier on the blueberry plant to adjust its watering than it is to spray it with chemicals or dig it up.
By approaching solutions in this way, it makes it easier for you to treat your blueberry plant, as you can work your way up from simple solutions to more complex ones.
How Do You Know if Your Blueberry Plant Is Dying?
|Blueberry Bush Symptom||Issue*|
|Curling or Wilting Leaves||Under-Watered, Heat Stress, Transplant Shock|
|Yellow Leaves||Under/Over-Watered, Transplant Shock, Lack or Excess Nutrients, Pests|
|Brown Leaves||Under-Watered, Heat/Frost Stress, Transplant Shock, Pests|
|Red Leaves||Frost Stress, Lack of Nutrients, Disease|
|Spotted Leaves or Fruit||Pests or Diseases|
|Dropping Leaves||Under/Over-Watered, Heat/Frost Stress, Transplant Shock, Lack or Excess Nutrients, Pests or Diseases|
|Dropping Fruit||Under/Over-Watered, Heat/Frost Stress, Transplant Shock, Lack or Excess Nutrients, Lack of Pollination, Pests or Diseases|
It can be difficult to tell if your blueberry plant is dying or not, but generally, if it has any of the above symptoms, it’s likely declining in health.
Keep in mind that these symptoms aren’t normally a cause for concern if they’re affecting less than 10-20% of the plant. For example, it’s fairly normal for 10-20% of your blueberry plant’s leaves to be yellow or brown. The same is true for some flower or fruit drop.
However, if more than 20% of the plant is affected, or you’re seeing other concerning signs such as pest or disease symptoms, then action is likely needed to save the plant.
Also, blueberry bushes are deciduous plants, so it’s normal for them to lose their leaves in the fall and winter. This is a strategy to reduce the plant’s energy expenditure and go into dormancy to survive the winter (much like bears hibernating).
On the other hand, evergreen fruiting plants adapted to the cold differently or are native to more tropical climates (with little to no frost). As a result, evergreen fruiting plants (such as citrus trees) keep their leaves year-round.
So don’t stress if your blueberry plant is losing its leaves in the fall or winter! However, if your blueberry plant is losing its leaves early (in the spring or summer), or has other symptoms, continue reading to see what we can do to help it.
3 Quick Steps To Save a Dying Blueberry Bush
If you’ve already tried finding out which issue your blueberry plant has, and you’ve gotten stuck, there’s still hope.
Here are 3 steps you can use to save your blueberry plant, for just about any condition.
1. Identify the Possible Issues
The first step in reviving a dying blueberry bush is to identify the possible issues. After all, the process of elimination wouldn’t work if we didn’t know which options we were eliminating!
If you haven’t seen them yet, reference the below sections for the top 5 most common blueberry bush issues.
2. Isolate the Actual Issue
Once you’ve checked the specific symptoms your blueberry plant has, you can now cross off potential issues from your list.
Try to get it down to 1-3 potential issues that best match the symptoms your blueberry plant is exhibiting. This will give you the best chances to provide the right solution for it (you don’t want to spray the plant with neem oil if the problem is a watering issue).
If you’re still not sure about the issue your blueberry plant has, that’s okay! Call up your local nursery and get their opinion on what’s happening. You may need to talk to a few people to get their experience, but there’s a strong chance they’ve seen it before and can point you in the right direction (or even provide you with the solution!).
Additionally, you can contact your local professional orchard or cooperative extension service.
3. Test Solutions
Now that you have a narrowed-down list of the potential issues, it’s time to try the solutions one at a time.
Start with the least invasive solution and work your way up to the most invasive. Again, providing less water is much easier on the plant than going through the process of repotting it. Try to save that option for last.
Continue testing the treatments you believe are most likely to fix the issue. Hopefully, one of them sticks.
Worst case scenario, start from step 1 and make a new list of possible issues. There’s a chance you might have missed something or you notice something new the second time around.
Stay persistent! It’s easy to say, “Dumb plant, why don’t you want to live?”, but there’s always a reason why plants act the way they do. Stay the course and see if you can uncover it.
Now, to give you a head start on treating your blueberry plant, let’s look at the 5 most common reasons why blueberry plants die.
The Top 5 Reasons Why Blueberry Bushes Die
1. Over or Under-Watering
Over and under-watering commonly causes a blueberry plant to die, with under-watering being the most frequent cause. Too little water and the blueberry plant’s leaves will curl, brown, and drop. On the other hand, too much water causes root rot and dropping leaves. Only water when the soil is dry and provide 2 inches of compost and 4 inches of mulch.
When blueberry plants are under-watered, their leaves curl to conserve moisture. If left for too long, the leaves will begin to dry further and brown. Occasionally, this leads to leaf drop, although some blueberry plants keep their brown leaves. Under-watering is common in hot and dry climates, where soil moisture can be evaporated in a matter of hours.
On the other hand, over-watered blueberry bushes cause stagnant water in the soil and root rot. This is especially common for soils with poor drainage. Once the plant is waterlogged, it becomes stressed until the roots can have a chance to dry out a bit and fight off the root rot mold. If left with wet soil and root rot, the roots begin decaying, leading to more brown leaves before killing the plant.
While there is a lot of information out there about how to water plants, the best rule is to only water when the soil is dry. This prevents both over and under-watering as you’re only watering when the plant needs it.
Also, providing 2 inches of compost and 4 inches of mulch on top of the soil goes a long way to helping the soil hold more water and increase the water independence of the plant. It also encourages deeper roots that can access deeper water. However, this should only be done once the blueberry bush has well-draining soil as these practices can make poor drainage worse.
Here’s a bit more information about compost and mulch (and why they’re incredibly beneficial for your blueberry plant).
Compost provides valuable nutrients to the soil and increases the soil’s richness and water retention. For example, every 1% increase in the soil’s richness can hold an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre (source). It also feeds beneficial soil life such as earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi—which provide even more nutrients and disease resistance for the plant.
Mycorrhizal fungi promote many aspects of plant life, in particular improved nutrition, better growth, stress tolerance, and disease resistance.Department of Biology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
Mulch protects the soil (and the biological soil life) from drying out in the sun and wind. In hot and dry weather, mulch dramatically reduces evaporation and locks in moisture from the soil. In cold weather, mulch provides a layer of insulation for the plant and its roots. Some good mulches for blueberry bushes are leaves, bark, pine needles, and straw.
So, to recap:
Once you have well-draining soil, only water blueberry bushes when the first 2-4 inches of soil are dry. I check for this by pushing a finger into the soil. Then, apply 2 inches of compost and 4 inches of mulch under the plant’s canopy, keeping them at least 3 inches from the stem. Reapply compost every 1-2 months and mulch every 3-6 months.
If you need to test your soil’s drainage, you can dig a 1-foot by 1-foot hole near the blueberry bushes and fill it with water. If the hole drains slower than 2 inches per hour, it has poor drainage.
Also, make sure to dig the hole outside of the plant’s canopy to avoid damaging the shallow roots.
For already planted blueberry plants with poor drainage, it can be difficult to fix their soil due to the volume of amendments needed. Generally, providing compost and mulch on top of the soil is the best way to amend it. While this can take a while, the materials work their way into the soil over time.
This way you also avoid digging up the plant (which can cause transplant shock and stress the plant out more).
For blueberry plants that have not yet been planted, planting in mounds of soil is the best way to avoid dealing with poorly draining soil, such as heavy clay soils. For more about heavy clay soil and planting in mounds, check out my other post here.
For potted blueberry bushes, you can test the soil’s drainage by checking if the water runs out of the pot’s drainage holes. If the top of the soil is staying wet (more than a couple of hours) the plant likely needs to be repotted with fresh potting soil.
2. Transplant Shock
If a blueberry bush was recently planted or repotted, and it’s starting to die, it’s probably due to transplant shock. Transplant shock occurs when the plant is exposed to a new environment and has to establish a new root system. Avoid transplanting unless necessary as it can take up to 1 year for recovery.
Like many plants, blueberry bushes are vulnerable to transplant shock, which can take up to a year for them to recover from. To help avoid transplant shock, I like to plant with the following steps in mind:
- Have the new ground (or pot) prepared
- Remove as much of the plant’s current topsoil as possible, without damaging the shallow roots
- Grab the base of the plant’s stem and wiggle lightly
- Using your other hand, scoop up and support the rootball
- Lightly place the plant in the new ground (or pot) and fill it in
- Make sure the soil is at the same level on the stem as before
- Apply 2 inches of compost and 4 inches of mulch to the top of the soil
- Water generously and add more soil as needed
3. Lack of Nutrients
If you’re using chemical fertilizers, provide blueberry bushes with an acidic fertilizer with a mostly balanced NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), such as Down to Earth’s 4-3-6 Acid Mix on Amazon. Nitrogen provides the main growth for the plant, while phosphorus and potassium support vital functions and better fruiting.
Alternatively, you can apply 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months. Unlike chemical fertilizers, compost has other benefits such as improved water retention and can even replace fertilizers.
A dying blueberry plant can be caused by either too few or too many nutrients. This commonly includes symptoms such as yellow and brown leaves on blueberry bushes.
With too few nutrients, blueberry plants develop deficiencies and can’t support their leaves’ nutrient demands. As a result, they start to discolor and die. On the other hand, too many nutrients chemically burn the plant’s roots and lead to browning and dropping leaves.
For more information about which fertilizers you should use on blueberry bushes, check out my recommended fertilizer page. You can also make your own homemade fertilizer or compost.
Imbalanced Soil pH
Keep in mind that soil pH is equally, if not more important than nutrients.
Generally, blueberry bushes prefer a soil pH of 4.5-5.5 (source).
Without a proper soil pH, the solid nutrients in the soil are unable to be dissolved and used by the plant’s finer roots.
Fourteen of the seventeen essential plant nutrients are obtained from the soil. Before a nutrient can be used by plants it must be dissolved in the soil solution. Most minerals and nutrients are more soluble or available in acid soils than in neutral or slightly alkaline soils.Donald Bickelhaupt, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
Because of this, imbalanced soil pH leads to discoloring and dying leaves and eventually—a dying plant.
You can measure soil pH with pH strips or a pH meter. I prefer using a pH meter since they’re easy to use and affordable. To see which pH meter I use and recommend, visit my recommended tools page.
If you do find that your blueberry plant’s soil pH is too acidic (below 4.5), consider adding alkaline materials to the soil like biochar, powdered lime, or wood ash.
On the other hand, if your blueberry plant’s soil pH is too alkaline (above 5.5), use acidic amendments such as sand, peat moss, and coffee grounds.
4. Weather Stress
|Blueberry Variety||Hardiness Zones|
|Rabbiteye or Southern Highbush||7-9|
Blueberry bushes are natively from temperature climates, so they prefer cooler environments such as USDA hardiness zones 4-7. However, this is a generalization as there are varieties that prefer warmer or colder zones.
Climates that are too cold (below zone 3-4) or those that are hot and dry quickly pose a problem for blueberry bushes.
For best results, keep blueberry bushes in a cool and mild climate if possible. If the sun is too hot, and the tips of the leaves are browning, provide shade or move potted blueberry plants indoors. When bringing them indoors, take care to avoid the hot and dry air from the central heat.
In hot and dry areas such as California, Arizona, Nevada, and parts of Texas, blueberry bushes lose moisture from their leaves and soil quickly. Normally, blueberry plants do best in temperatures under 85ºF. Any hotter and they start to suffer and die.
Much like humans, plants breathe and release moisture when hot. For plants, this is called transpiration. When the climate is too hot and dry, the transpiration and root moisture can’t effectively keep up and cool the plant and its leaves. As a result, the blueberry bush’s leaves dry, curl, brown, and sometimes drop.
So, the hotter and drier the weather, the more energy the plant uses to transpire and survive, and the less energy it has to use to establish its root system and grow. This drain of resources can quickly stunt or kill the plant.
If you live in a drier climate and you’d like more information about the best drought-tolerant fruiting plants, check out my other post: 30 Best Drought-Tolerant Fruit and Nut Trees (Ranked).
If temperatures fall below -30ºF (the standard zone 4 minimum temperature), the blueberry plant will likely start to die. For planted blueberry bushes, you can insulate the plant and its soil by giving it 6-12 inches of mulch. You can also use windbreaks to reduce the effects of windchill.
I would suggest not moving potted blueberry bushes indoors during the winter as they typically require 200-800+ chill hours (under 45ºF) to maintain dormancy and fruit properly in the spring. Since indoor temperatures rarely get this low, it’s normally not a good idea.
So, aim to keep your blueberry plant in temperatures 45ºF and below during the winter.
Another issue with moving a blueberry bush indoors is that the central heat indoors can dry out the plant quickly.
I found out about the effects of central heat the hard way. We had a surprise snowstorm last year here in Austin, Texas, and I moved my potted Meyer lemon tree inside. However, it quickly started losing its leaves. After moving it into a cooler room, it quickly started growing new leaves (see the photo below).
When it comes to sheltering your potted blueberry plant during temperatures below -30ºF, move it to a basement or another cool, sheltered location. Try to keep the temperature under 45ºF to maintain the plant’s chill hours.
5. Pests and Diseases
Blueberry leaves can turn brown and fall off due to pests and diseases such as blueberry maggots, fruit-worms, canker, root rot, and blight. Treat pests by using organic insecticides or companion plants, and diseases with organic fungicides.
You can generally tell if a blueberry bush has pests by inspecting the leaves and the berries. You should be able to see the pests themselves or signs of the pest such as holes in the leaves or fruits. To see more about pests and how you can treat blueberry plants of them, check out this resource by the University of Maryland.
On the other hand, diseases are typically shown as yellow, red, or brown spots or blotches on the leaves and other parts of the bush. To see more about which diseases blueberry bushes get and how to treat them, visit this resource by Michigan State University.
A Note on Pesticides and Fungicides
We recently had an issue with caterpillars eating our basil plants and we were about FED UP. Every time we’d plant basil plants, the caterpillars ate it.
Fortunately, we found an organic spray at our local nursery that’s made from fermented rum. The day after spraying, we’d find dead caterpillars on the soil.
If you’d like to find out more about this organic spray, you can find it here on Amazon.
So, what’s my point here?
Before using chemical sprays, weigh the pros and cons and consider trying organic or permaculture-based treatments first. Even though chemical sprays and fertilizers are an easy way out, like all easy and convenient things, there are usually long-term costs!
To give you a head start, Stefan Sobkowiak – The Permaculture Orchard has a great video on a safe, homemade, and most importantly—effective fungicide (hint: the secret ingredient is whey).
Also, check out how Mark Shepard uses a method called STUN (Sheer-Total-Utter-Neglect) to help his berry plants and fruit and nut trees THRIVE.
Need More Help?
You can always ask us here at Couch to Homestead, but you should know the other resources available to you! Here are the resources we recommend.
- Local Cooperative Extension Services: While we do our best with these articles, sometimes knowledge from a local expert is needed! The USDA partnered with Universities to create these free agriculture extension services. Check out this list to see your local services.
- Permaculture Consultation: Need help with a bigger project? Send us a message.