Fresh strawberries are a delectable summer treat whether eaten right out of the garden, in homemade ice cream, old-fashioned strawberry shortcake, jelly, jam, or other desserts. Berries from the grocery store produce department are no match for growing your own delicious juicy fruits in your own garden. Strawberries are easy to grow and with the right conditions the same plants can produce fruit for up to five years before they need to be replaced.
There are three main types of strawberries plants and many varieties of each type. Which you choose depends on whether you want to eat fresh berries all summer or have a large crop within a short period of time for freezing or canning.
June bearing strawberry varieties will produce one large single crop in the late spring over a period of two to three weeks. The largest berries will be from June-bearing plants. These varieties make many runners that create “daughter” plants where they touch the soil.
Plant individual berry plants in an alternating pattern 18 inches apart with four and a half feet between the rows. This gives the runners room to spread as they wish, but if you give them half a chance they will take over the yard too! Train the runners toward empty spots between the plants and secure the ends to the soil with a small rock so they will root and make daughter plants. Before long, the plants will form a lovely green mat.
In a spaced row system, plants should be placed 18″ apart in rows that are three to four feet apart. Spaced rows produce a higher yield and larger berries with fewer disease problems. Guide the daughter plants to spaces between the mother plants so they are about six inches apart and make rows about two feet wide. Cut off any extra runners.
Pinch off any blossoms that appear the first year that you plant June-bearers. This will encourage the plants to grow vigorously and produce more runners. Your payoff comes the next summer when they will be bursting with wonderful strawberries!
Everbearing varieties will produce two or three harvests of fruit throughout the growing season and will produce a full crop the first season. They do not make many runners. Day neutral strawberries will produce throughout the growing season and also offer few runners. Both varieties are good for gardens with limited space or container gardening and produce small flavorful berries. Everbearing and day neutral berries are best planted in groups of two or three plants on hills that are eight inches high and two feet wide. Stagger the hills twelve inches apart. If space is tight, consider planting them in strawberry pots (containers with pockets around the sides), hanging baskets, containers, or a raised bed. Remove any runners to allow more crowns and flower stalks to develop and pinch off any blossoms that appear until the first of July. Pinching off some of the blossoms after they begin to form tiny berries will allow the remaining berries to grow larger.
Whichever variety of strawberry you choose, the garden preparation, fertilization, sunlight and watering requirements are the same.
Buy strawberry plants that are not potted to save money and for ease of planting. Check online or mail order catalogs to choose varieties. You may also be able to get free starter plants from a friend or neighbor who has a patch. If they grow June-bearing strawberries they should have plenty of daughter plants to spare!
Strawberries require full sun, no less than six hours a day, and well-drained, sandy soil. More sunlight means more and better quality berries. They will not tolerate drought or standing water. Plant them in the spring as soon as the soil is dry enough to work.
Till and cultivate sod the year before you plant strawberries to eliminate competition from grass. Work in one or two inches of compost or well-rotted manure. Pick a spot that is free from grubs, perennial weeds and disease. Avoid planting strawberries where tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants or peppers have been planted within the last three years. These plants may have infested the soil with verticillium rot which is especially hazardous to strawberry plants. Place your strawberry patch beyond the root zone of large trees so they won’t compete for water and nutrients.
Plant on a cloudy day or in the late afternoon so the sun doesn’t stress the plants. Make a hole large enough that you can spread the roots out. Make a hill in the center of the hole so that the crown of the plant will be at soil level. Spread the roots over the hill and bury them.
Strawberry plants require cool soil to produce the best harvest. Mulch between the rows to keep the soil cool, discourage weeds, and keep the fruit from laying on the soil. Don’t use black plastic as mulch because it will raise the soil temperature. Give the garden and inch or two of water if it hasn’t rained much the previous week.
Once your garden has begun to set fruit, you will need to put a mesh net over the crop to keep birds from helping themselves to your tempting berries, and they always go for the biggest, juiciest ones! As the berries grow, watch for any showing signs of disease or rot and remove them from the garden.
Harvest your strawberries when they turn bright red all over. If you’re not sure if they’re ripe, taste one. It won’t hurt to leave them on the plant an extra day or two; they’ll become more flavorful. Don’t pull them off the stem; strawberries bruise very easily and need gentle handling. Break the stem off above the berry and place (don’t throw!) it into a bowl or basket. They like to hide under the leaves so look carefully to be sure you get them all! Pick berries shortly before you plan to use them and don’t leave them at room temperature for more than a few hours. If you can’t use them right away put the unwashed berries in a bowl loosely covered with plastic wrap in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
After your crop is harvested renovate your strawberry garden to prepare it for the next season. Carefully mow the crowns down to two or three inches. Till or hoe between the rows, mulch and all, and reduce the width of the rows to six to 12 inches wide, thinning plants to six inches apart. Fertilize the plants with a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) at five pounds per 100 feet of row.
In colder climates, before the temperature drops to 20 degrees, cover the crowns of the plants with several inches of straw or pine needles to protect the leaves from frost. In the spring when the leaves begin to turn yellow gently rakes off the mulch into the space between the rows and fertilize and maintain the plants as in the previous season. A well-maintained strawberry patch may last five years, but if after three or four years the plants or berries begin to diminish in quality or quantity start a new strawberry patch in a new location.
By J. E. Davidson