Blueberry Bushes Wilting and Dying

PoouaApril 29, 2014

I have a 3000 square foot back yard in which I grow blueberry bushes in containers ranging in size from 3-gallon to 35-gallon. I use straight peat moss (I prefer MiracleGro) topped with pine bark mulch. I've used this setup for about four years. At random times, a few of my blueberry plants will suddenly begin wilting and die. This year, four of my plants, including some of my biggest, oldest and strongest bushes, suddenly wilted entirely and likely will die within the next two days. I don't see any evidence of insects or fungus. The soil is moist, perhaps too moist. I can't get a decent reading on pH, but my newly-bought pH meter says everything is almost 7. I've added several tablespoons of sulfur to all my bushes. Does anyone have any ideas what is causing this?

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are you using municiple water or tap water?

    Bookmark   April 29, 2014 at 6:53AM
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You'll know if the pH is too high if you see signs of chlorosis. Iron chlorosis is not rapidly fatal, your plant will be yellow, display slow, weak growth and eventually die. Too little water also is slow death and the wilting is obvious. Rapid death is usually fungus, virus or too much water. Blueberries die quickly from too much water and this is one of the biggest problems for container grown plants. Make sure water drains freely from the bottom holes on your pots.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2014 at 8:24AM
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If your pH is 7,that is too high and certainly is contributing. Were they my bushes, and I had confidence in the pH reading, I'd repot then immediately in new low pH mix.

Potting mix has a limited life and should be renewed periodically. If you water with high pH water, that will eventually overcome the acidity of the mix.

This post was edited by charina on Tue, Apr 29, 14 at 9:18

    Bookmark   April 29, 2014 at 9:14AM
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It is possible to reliably measure pH by using indicator dye solutions, available from HMS Beagle, and other sources. This method is less expensive than using a glass membrane pH meter, which must be calibrated before use. However, indicator dye, while reliable, is not as precise-it does not have the same resolution as a pH meter. Using bromocresol green, I can confirm that my blueberry shrubs are growing in soil with pH in the range 4.4, 4.5, 4.6, 4.7, 4.8, but I can not be confident which particular pH value is correct. Indicator dye solutions can also be used to check the pH of irrigation water-all you have to do is add a drop of indicator to a small sample of water, and note the color. If someone asked be to check the pH on a potted plant, I would first thoroughly water the plant with distilled water, and then collect a sample at the outflow, located at the bottom of the pot. This sample would be checked for pH, and that would be interpreted as being representative of the soil in the pot.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2014 at 9:31AM
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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

Sudden wilting and death isn't pH related. It sounds more like stem blight.

Straight peat moss shouldn't be too high pH. But well water could become an issue after a few months as the bicarbonates increase media pH. High pH will cause chlorotic leaves and decreased growth.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2014 at 11:10AM
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I should have mentioned that I water my blueberry plants primarily with rain water that I collect from the runoff from my roof. I have a capacity of about 2000 gallons, though I have difficulty collecting that much at one time. When I run out, I resort to city tap water. My area is in Stage 3 water restrictions, meaning I'm allowed to water only every-other week.

I haven't seen any sign of disease, insect infestation or microbe. One day my plants will be fine; the next, half the leaves will be limply swinging in the wind, eventually drying out and turning brown and crunchy.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2014 at 5:12PM
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drew51 SE MI Z5b/6a

Maybe you should mail a sample to your local University extension office. Or take a sample in a sealed plastic bag to a local private nursery. Most private nurseries offer diagnostic services for a fee. It's worth it to find out what the problem is. How do the roots look on the dead plants? Any photos would be helpful.
Blueberry Scorch Virus will kill plants quickly. Symptoms are very red leaves with green veins.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2014 at 10:15PM
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I shot five photos of one of my wilted blueberry bushes. The photo I attached to this message shows some of the worst damage to the bush.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2014 at 10:42AM
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catkin(UDSA Zone 8)

Could they be pot bound?

    Bookmark   April 30, 2014 at 3:15PM
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The wilting happens at random, across pot sizes. This particular plant is in a 25-gallon container, but I have plants in as small as a 3-gallon container, and several are in 18-gallon buckets. Also, the wilting is abrupt; one day, the plant looks perfectly healthy; the next, half its leaves are drooping.

I'll attach another photo of that plant.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2014 at 12:52PM
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This doesn't look like stem blight, pH or any virus I've seen. There doesn't appear to be any leaf discoloration. They look like mature bushes with good color. I would suspect too much water. Can you pull the root ball out of the pot and check? Normally they tell you to plug the holes in the pots loosely with stones or broken pottery, but I find this doesn't allow adequate drainage. There should be drainage holes all around the bottom of the pot.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2014 at 1:05PM
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It could very easily be too much water. The pots have drainage holes in the bottom, but this pot has been quite damp for a prolonged period of time. This particular plant actually is resting on a plastic sheet that I placed underneath the surrounding dirt (over the top of the original ground that I then covered in garden soil). The problem is even worse in previous summers if the base gets hot in the sun while the soil is wet; I've stopped watering after 10 a.m. and before 5 P.M. because I think the solar-heated water kills the roots.

I recently went to an environmental fair (Learn 2 Live Green in Plano), where I received a free electronic water meter. It shows that most of my blueberry plants currently are pegging the moisture scale (except one that was dangerously dry). I've had difficulty figuring out when to water, because the soil dries at random rates, even for the same plant. Sometimes, a plant will remain wet for a week, but other times, it will be dangerously dry just two days after I water it.

I did not use gravel or sand or anything but straight peat moss in these containers, exactly because the Texas A&M website said that putting those other things in the container could impede drainage. They recommend straight peat moss, and that seems most practical to me.

Perhaps it is a mix of too much water combined with too much sun? The area these plants are in I named, "The Death Zone," because everything in there died, until I put these blueberry plants in. I once set down a germination tray full of peat pellets on the ground in that Zone, only to find a few hours later that the black plastic tray had actually melted into a shapeless puddle of plastic. I'd like to put up a fabric screen one of these days, if I get the money.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2014 at 1:31PM
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Here is an experiment to try with one.Mix about 50-70% Pine and or Fir bark mulch with the peat moss.It will help with the drainage and the peat will retain some needed moisture.A little perlite couldn't hurt either.
Straight peat in a container may work,but it can get very dense and the roots could have trouble with air exchange and may develop root rot. Brady

    Bookmark   May 1, 2014 at 1:49PM
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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

That big pot simply looks too dry. I have to water my potted plants everyday in summer. Blueberries aren't the best plants for your "death zone". Figs would be better but anything will require regular watering in a pot.

Straight peat moss with drainage holes shouldn't be too wet. And if you let peat moss dry out it is hard to rewet. The water runs down the side and doesn't wet much media. If that happens you may need a dish under the pot to hold water until the media can be rewet. Then it needs regular watering to stay moist. Don't let it dry completely.

The only issues I've had with media that's too wet is when the media settles by a large amount. This indicates that the soil structure has collapsed and is now water logged. I'd only expect too wet if the media volume has shrunk by 1/3 or more. If the pot doesn't have drainage holes it could be too wet.

Pull that big wilted plant out of the pot or dig down in the media. It should be easy to tell if it's too wet or too dry.

I won't trust those cheapo water meters. They show pegged out wet unless it's bone dry IME.

If it were stem blight they'd wilt and turn brown.

This post was edited by fruitnut on Thu, May 1, 14 at 14:06

    Bookmark   May 1, 2014 at 2:01PM
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Hi. Thought I'd post a reply to this thread instead of starting my own. I'm having the same problem with a blueberry bush. Mine's in much worse shape as you can see from the photo. It's in a 21-inch container filled with the Mavericks Potting Mix found on this page:

I put this in the pot several weeks ago and the leaves started drying out and dying last week. When I potted it, I used this soil acidifier as instructed:

The PH still reads around 7, though, so I'm not sure if I need to add more. The plant has been kept steadily moist but could have possibly been over-watered a bit. What does the damage in the pic look to be a result of? This was a cheap plant I bought for $2 at Grocery Oulet, so that could have something to do with. I bought two and the other one seems to be doing OK with being treated the exact same way.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2014 at 3:22PM
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cjgw: That product's primary indredient for lowering pH is sulfur. It is 30% sulfur. Sulfur takes time and warm temps to lower pH, so it's no suprise your pH is still high. Per the directions, add more in 60 days if the pH has not dropped enough by that point.

How is the drainage in that pot? Like most plants, bbs are susciptle to drowning. While the Maverick product says it is well draining, being mostly compost and sand, I doubt it drains well enough for most potting situations. It very well may have been overwatered in something like that.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2014 at 5:01PM
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thanks for the tips, charina. i'm thinking the draining holes on those pots might not be sufficient. i'll have to see how i can improve them. i'm using the same potting mix for some other vegetables which are doing just fine so maybe the blueberries are just more sensitive? do you think there's anything i can do to save this plant, from the looks of it, or is it too late?

    Bookmark   May 7, 2014 at 3:16AM
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I don't have experience with ailing blueberries, so cannot comment from experience if that one can come back. But my gut tells me it's toast.

I really don't have any idea if poor drainage/overwatering of that bush caused its demise or not, but it is a good possibility - esp since you had concerns that such might have happened. I also see dark areas on its stem that could be fungal infections (i.e. stem blight), but its impossible for me to say if that is the problem, or a symptom of something else like death of the roots.

Re proper drainage in a pot: It's not just the holes in the bottom that are important (albeit that is a critical component). A mix of compost and sand will naturally not want to drain well, and will retain lots of water. That makes it easier to overwater no matter how many holes are in the bottom of the pot. And whether the mix can contact the ground through holes in the bottom is another significant factor. For further details regarding drainage in a container see: Container Soils - Water Movement and Retention XIX

    Bookmark   May 7, 2014 at 11:09AM
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drew51 SE MI Z5b/6a

The plant looks bad, but appears to be trying to recover. I suspect a combination of two things. Roots were damaged, and it was not acclimated properly. Keep it moist not wet, which means hardly any water. Also most times you want to water till the water runs through. I advise against this with a sick plant. I would limit water adding only enough to moisten soil slightly. Once plant recovers a more normal watering can be resumed.
The read on water movement is OK, but gives a one size fits all approach which is super incorrect. Many plants like to be moist, many take more water than others.. Al advocates a dead mix, which I think is a huge mistake.
Overall his mix matches just about any potting soil, despite the claims it does not, just read a bag of miracle grow.

Potting soil will work, so it's not bad, but each plant species have specific needs, so I'm more an advocate of specific mixes based on plant species.

The potting mix you are using seems decent. Sand is great for drainage, Lava rock provides lot's of air space. Compost makes it a living soil. I guess the biggest disagreement with Al is the use of compost. Here in this forum, most who have grown blueberries in containers use compost. I myself was a little hesitant, but found a product I like. A peat based compost. It counters the natural tendency for compost to raise PH. Fruitnut uses compost, blueboy uses organic ferts (which is really...compost), those two have the best BB plants in containers. I don't think Al owns a blueberry plant? So i would not take the advice of somebody who has not grown them. I myself have 7 plants and 4 are in containers.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2014 at 12:17PM
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Drew, IâÂÂve read your take on AlâÂÂs advice on potting mix hydraulics quite a few times, and I am left to wonder if you have really digested what Al has said. I for one have seen Al say over and over that there is no âÂÂone size fits allâ as you suggest he advocates. He has posted over and over that what he is presenting is an attempt to explain the principles of potting mix hydraulics so that one can understand and chose for themselves how to make a proper mix for their circumstance. He then goes on to say âÂÂthis is what works for meâÂÂ, but in no way advocates âÂÂone size fits allâ in relation to mechanical properties.

In relation to fertilization, it does lean more towards âÂÂone size fits allâÂÂ. While I havenâÂÂt vouched his claims to the literature he cites, he does present such ratios of NPK based on what seems to be a sound basis. I still wouldnâÂÂt characterize it as âÂÂone size fits allâÂÂ.

While it is a commonly held misbelief that sand is used to improve drainage, the opposite is actually true when used in conjunction with other dissimilar sized particles. ItâÂÂs like the pine needles and oak leaves acidifying soil. Such a wifeâÂÂs tale that has been told so many times, it is almost gospel, but it is not true. Just because the forest floor under oaks and pine trees is acidic does not mean those products are adequate to lower pH when applied as a mulch. Just because sand drains well does not mean that adding it to other media creates drainage. The opposite is true when the sand is mixed with other particle sizes. It slows down passage of water, allowing for more retention, and holds water in the micropores between the sand and the other media products. This is clearly quantified in peer reviewed studies measuring the retention and drainage of various mixes.

It reminds me of people in UT who often repeat that sand should be added to our clay soils to improve drainage. Wrong! What they actually end up doing is making low grade cement by the addition of sand! Just because it seems logical, and is oft repeated, does not mean it is true.

Regarding FruitnutâÂÂs âÂÂcompostâÂÂ. I have raised many thousands of rodents. I have composted more cubic yards of the wastes than I would ever care to count. I used to commercially raise rodents. Even when thoroughly hot composted a couple times, the result is nothing like peat or other traditional potting mixes or compost. It is far more like composted pine bark fines. It is a good draining product. Nothing like the maverick potting mix linked to.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2014 at 1:30PM
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A nice tip I picked up for a quick lowering of the ph is to brew some coffee as coffee is acidic and use 1/3 coffee and 2/3's water or there about. It can do a quick turn around and give blueberries a boost if its a problem with ph, have seen it first hand. I use Holly tone and other methods for long term ph adjusting too.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2014 at 3:42PM
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You cant use STRAIGHT peat moss for anything.
The peat moss will eventually become WATER repelling.
The water will not reach the roots of the plant.
Take the plants out of the STRAIGHT peat moss,
let them soak in a bucket of water, and go by yourself
some good draining potting mix.
You have nothing to loose, because sooner or later, all your bushes are going to be dead.
POOUA. why are you growing these in pots anyway?
THey will do fine in the ground.
Oh, by the way, after you repot in regular potting mix, I would give them Miracle Grow Quick Start, read the instructions on the label please.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2014 at 3:59PM
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Hope your blueberry plants are doing better now but I came across this board little late. Did you take a look at Tennessee State University's article page 4?
Maybe this is what the problem with your plants?

    Bookmark   June 27, 2014 at 10:16PM
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milehighgirl(CO USDA 5B/Sunset 2B)


I have had difficulty with potted plants also. I was shocked last fall when I decided to up pot some of my figs. I had been watering them regularly but when I removed them from their pots I found that the soil was not evenly moist. Half would be wet while the other half bone dry. Also the black plastic pots heated up too much.

This year I have put my pots in large kiddie pools with a hole punctured a few inches from the bottom. The pots are staying cool because they are shaded, and when I water them they can soak it up evenly. Once the soil in a pot dries out too much it is nearly impossible to get it evenly moist; the water will run down the inside of the pot and then straight out. Your pots are rather large so you might consider cement mixing tubs for individual pots.

This video might be of interest to you as well.

Here is a link that might be useful: What Is Air Pruning? Can It Really Improve My Container Garden

    Bookmark   June 28, 2014 at 12:37AM
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milehighgirl(CO USDA 5B/Sunset 2B)


It dawned on me that the reason you are growing blueberries in pots with as much room as you have would be that your soil is not acidic enough.

I was referred to this method by Kelly Grummons of Timberline Gardens in Colorado. I planted my Sunshine Blue last spring using this method. A recent pH test shows a reading of 4.5, with the surrounding soils at about 8. This method is far easier than using pots. I still water with rain water and I need to fertilize now, but the bushes are healthy and green. I did not get any blooms this year but that may be because it was a horrible winter and we had late frosts.

Here is a link that might be useful: Blueberry growing intense in Colorado

    Bookmark   June 29, 2014 at 1:00PM
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