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Growing your Huckleberries

Tilling rotted sawdust or bark into the soil a year before planting can improve huckleberry survival and growth. Include one pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer for every cubic foot (13 pounds) of sawdust of bark. One authority recommends partially burying 12-inch diameter or larger rotted conifer logs (except cedar) in the rows alongside where the huckleberries will be planted. The rotting wood enhances huckleberry growth. Also, the rhizomes tend to grow along and within the logs, creating narrower, more easily-managed rows.

When your plants are about six inches tall, transplant them into the field. You may also choose to grow the huckleberries for an additional year in one-gallon containers if you want larger plants for setting into the field. Set the plants two to three feet apart in rows eight to ten feet apart, depending on the species and equipment you will use to maintain the planting. Huckleberries may produce more and larger fruit when they are cross pollinated. To do this, plant several individuals of the same species together to ensure cross pollination and good fruit set. This will not be a problem if you start your plants from seed. If you propagate your huckleberries from rhizome or stem cuttings that are all collected from the same plant, all of the mature plants will be identical and no cross pollination will occur. To avoid this situation, collect cuttings from several different colonies separated by at least several hundred yards.

Containerized plants acclimated to outdoor conditions can be planted any time from early spring through late fall, although spring or fall planting is generally recommended. If the soils on your site frost heave, plant in the spring. Immediately after planting, water to settle the soil. Mulch around each bush with about four inches of sawdust or fine bark. At least some huckleberries may form beneficial symbiotic relationships with certain soil fungi called mycorrhizae. You can provide these fungi for your plants by mixing a shovel full of soil collected from a native huckleberry site with the backfill from each planting hole. When collecting native soil, scrape off the duff layer and collect the soil from the surface to about eight inches deep. Include pieces of buried, rotted wood from the site, if available. The downside of this practice is that you may be importing weeds along with the soil.

Huckleberries can be grown permanently in three- to five-gallon pots. Protect the roots from freezing during the winter by burying the pots in sawdust or by placing them inside a building that can be kept between 30 degrees and 35 degrees F. For all containerized huckleberries, use either liquid or slow-release fertilizers designed for container plants. Granulated fertilizers formulated for field use can injure or kill containerized plants. Follow label directions for application rates and timing.

Field-grown huckleberries respond well to granular, liquid, and slow-release fertilizers, as well as manures (table 1). Do not use weed and feed fertilizers. Follow label directions for liquid and slow-release fertilizers. If you incorporate sawdust or rotted logs into the soil, add extra nitrogen to offset that tied up by soil microorganisms as they decay the woody materials. Extra nitrogen is not usually required if sawdust or bark are placed on the soil surface as mulches.

Table 1. Recommendations for granular fertilizers and manures to be applied to field-planted western huckleberries.

Year Composted manure* (pounds per plant)** Granular fertilizers* (ounces per plant)**
  cow or horse poultry or rabbit 10-10-10 20-20-20 21-0-0
planting 5.0 lb 1.5 lb 4 oz 2 oz 2oz
2 7.5 2.0 6 3 3
3 10 3.0 8 4 4
4+ 12.5 3.5 10 6 5
* The number refer to the percentages of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P2O5), and potassium (K2O) respectively. 21-0-0 is ammonium sulfate. Cow and horse manures contain approximately 0.5 percent N. Poultry and rabbit manures contain approximately 1.8 percent N.** The rates given are for plants set 3 feet apart in rows 10 feet apart. For plants 2 feet apart in rows 8 feet apart, use one-half these rates.

Huckleberries do not compete well with weeds. Quackgrass and other perennial weeds create serious problems and are best eliminated before planting huckleberries by using a translocatable contact herbicide, such as glyphosate. Although western huckleberries are related to domestic blueberries, herbicides registered for use on blueberries have not been tested on huckleberries. At present, we have no data to support the use of herbicides on western huckleberries. Use mulches and hand weeding to control weeds. Huckleberries are shallow-rooted plants. Avoid hand or mechanical cultivation deeper than two inches. As with herbicides, insecticides and fungicides registered for domestic blueberries have not been tested on huckleberries.

Huckleberries grow slowly. Other than removing dead or damaged branches, pruning is not needed nor recommended in young plantings. We do not yet know how older, cultivated huckleberries respond to pruning. Dense plants, however, may benefit from occasional light pruning that opens the bushes up and improves light penetration and air movement. Although eastern lowbush blueberry fields are burned every two years and fires are common in the forests where huckleberries grow wild, burning is NOT recommended for western huckleberries. Burned huckleberry fields can take 10 to 15 years to return to full productivity.

This fact sheet is contributed by Dr. Danny L. Barney. Dr. Barney is a Professor of Horticulture and Extension Horticulturist specializing in small fruit and ornamental crops, and serves as Superintendent of the University of Idaho Sandpoint Research & Extension Center.