to Grow Strawberries
Sweet, juicy strawberries are not only a sure sign that the summer growing season has arrived, but they are also a very popular fruit for growing in the home garden. Even folks who never grow any other crop often find the time and space to grow strawberries. Some forethought and preparation is necessary for a good crop, but once you learn the ropes you can also grow strawberries in your garden.
Before you can begin to grow strawberries, choose an appropriate location for your strawberry patch and prepare the soil. Strawberries will grow best in a well drained sandy loam soil that is slightly acidic. The pH should be between 5.5 and 6.8 for best fruit production. If you are not blessed with a sandy loam soil in your garden, consider building a raised bed where you can grow strawberries. The raised bed can be supported by a frame or can be created by simply mounding soil in rows. No matter how you decide to build a raised bed, it should be at least six to eight inches deep for your strawberries.
To successfully grow strawberries, the planting soil should be high in organic matter. Amend the soil with plenty of compost before planting. Ideally, the strawberry bed should be prepared a year before the first strawberry plants are planted. It is helpful to plant a cover crop of oats, buckwheat, sudan grass, rye or clover in the planting bed for a season prior to planting strawberries. These green manures are then tilled under just before the strawberries are planted. In addition to adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil, the cover crop will also crowd out most weeds in the bed.
Everbearing strawberry plants will produce two crops annually, in the spring and the fall. Everbearing plants grow strawberries of a medium size for about three years, after which the fruit production declines and the plants need to be replaced. Most everbearing strawberry varieties do not send out runners that grow into new plants, or they send out very few runners compared to June-bearing and day-neutral varieties.
Day-neutral strawberry varieties will continue to produce fruit throughout the growing season as long as temperatures remain below 90 degrees Fahrenheit. In warm, frost-free climates these berries can bear fruit throughout much of the year, and in cooler climates they will produce from late May until the first fall frost. Day-neutral plants grow strawberries that are medium to large and tend to be more disease resistant than either June-bearing or everbearing plants. Day-neutral plants will produce some runners, although not as many as June-bearing varieties. Day-neutral varieties are also the best choice if you want to grow strawberries in containers.
It is helpful to try several varieties of strawberries to find the one or two that best suit your taste and your garden. A variety that performs well for your neighbor may not be the best for your own garden.
Once the bed has been prepared to grow strawberries and you have chosen and acquired your strawberry plants, it is time to plant them out. Each plant should be spaced 15 to 24 inches apart within the row. If the plants are being planted in the spring, give them 24 inches of space for growing throughout the season. Strawberries that are planted in the late summer or fall can be spaced more closely together since they won’t have time to send out many runners. Each row of strawberry plants should be planted three to four feet apart to give you room to work between the rows.
Be careful to not plant the strawberry plants too deeply. The plants should be settled in with their crowns at the surface of the soil. The crown is the fleshy part of the plant where the leaves develop, just above the roots. If planted too shallowly, the roots will dry out, and if planted too deeply, the plants will not grow well.
If you want to grow strawberries in your garden, you must learn to be patient. To allow the plants to establish themselves so they can produce a bountiful crop, do not expect to harvest any berries the first season after planting strawberry plants. During that first growing season, pinch off any flowers from the plants as soon as they appear. As you do this task, remind yourself that it will help ensure larger, more plentiful berries for the next year. Ideally, you can expect to harvest one to two quarts of berries from each plant.
If you grow strawberries that are June-bearing or day-neutral, the plants will produce runners. Runners grow into new “daughter” plants that blossom and grow strawberries the following growing season. Runners allow the gardener to continually renew the strawberry patch. Keep an eye on the development of runners and position them as they develop to achieve a density of five plants per square foot. Once this density has been reached, additional runners should be clipped off the mother plant. Use these orphan runners to build a larger strawberry patch, or share them with your gardening friends who want to grow strawberries. Runners that grow early in the season can be allowed to root right in the garden, but runners that set in September or later will not have time to set fruit buds for the next season. These late daughter plants can be rooted in small pots right in the garden until they are ready to be transplanted to another spot or shared with friends.
Fertilize the strawberry patch at planting time and also monthly during the growing season. Organic growers may wish to fertilize with a side dressing of compost along with seaweed and fish emulsion. Non-organic growers should look for a garden fertilizer with an N-P-K rating of 12-12-12 to grow strawberries. Apply one pound of 12-12-12 fertilizer for each fifty feet of row. Be careful to not over-fertilize the strawberry plants and avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers. Too much nitrogen will promote lush foliage at the expense of blossoms and fruit.
Once the plants begin producing ripe berries, the strawberry patch must be scouted regularly. Berries may need to be harvested as often as every other day during the peak of their season. Berries that have become overripe or rotten should also be removed from the plants to help avoid insect and disease problems. Berries that are left on the plant too long after they have ripened are susceptible to botrytis fruit rot.
Try to pick your strawberries with their little caps and stem still attached. This will help the berries store a bit longer in the refrigerator. Do not wash the ripe strawberries until just before they will be eaten or prepared for a dessert.
Once the strawberry plants have gone dormant for the winter, but before temperatures go below 20 degrees, a layer of straw mulch can be applied about two to four inches deep over the plants. Bark chips may also be used to mulch strawberries, but avoid using leaves or grass clippings as these materials tend to mat down too much and could smother the plants. To protect the plants from the drying effects of cold winter winds, be sure to completely cover the crowns of the strawberry plants with mulch. Remove the mulch in the spring at the time when the first new leaves are beginning to develop on the strawberry plants. Rake off most of the mulch and leave it between the rows. This mulch will help to keep the fruit clean and less susceptible to fruit rot problems.
If you don’t have a lot of growing room, you may also grow strawberries in a container. Day-neutral varieties are best for container growing. Choose a container for your strawberries that has adequate drainage, and use a well-draining potting mix. A good mix for strawberries would be two parts good potting soil and one part compost. Keep plants two to four inches apart in the container and make sure the soil stays consistently moist but not soggy.
The strawberries that are sold in supermarkets have been bred for their ability to ship well over long distances. Commercial strawberries are also one of the most heavily sprayed food crops. If you grow strawberries in your own garden, you can control their growing conditions and ensure a tasty, healthy crop of strawberries for your table.
by Michael J. McGroarty