In growing strawberries, you must know what to expect. Indeed you will get luscious red fruits for shortcakes and pies and in a lot less time than you would have to wait for tree fruits. Yes, strawberries are vigorous perennial plants that grow like crazy with very little encouragement. They take up relatively little space in the home garden. But your venture will be disappointing unless you acquire a bit of strawberry savvy.
Established beds that are left to fend for themselves will have all sorts of problems. They may suffer from bugs, diseases, and weeds that creep in. The plants will become overcrowded and will overrun the rest of the garden. Old plants will, over time, bear less and less heavily; their crowns will push up out of the soil and be winter injured.
And what you assumed would be strawberry fields forever will be nothing but a strawberry mess. To prevent all this from happening you will need to put a little effort into managing those beds. You may even decide that growing strawberries as an annual crop is the way to go.
Types of Strawberries
Therefore, there are four different kinds of strawberries, each of them wonderful for different reasons. The classic strawberry plants bear for a few weeks in June or earlier in warm climates and then quit. Strawberry festivals were inspired by this kind because the output during those weeks is so great that you either need to bake them, can them, freeze them, or open up you’re doors and feed the whole town.
“Ever-Bearing” strawberries, the second kind, don’t really bear all season. They produce two crops, the first at the usual time and the second in late summer. Neither crop is as large as that of June bearing plant, nor do ever-bearing types tend to be a little less hardy, but for gardeners who want two modest harvests rather than one big one, they are just right. “Day-neutral” strawberries are a new development. They are less sensitive to the difference between long and short days than the first two types.
They bear most of the summer, even as days lengthen, letting up only in the very hottest weather. These are perfect if you are more interested in a steady supply of strawberries than an avalanche. Day-neutral varieties are often planted in the fall and harvested the following spring even in relatively cool climates. Give this a try even if you live up north and see how it works for you.
Finally, there are the “Alpine” strawberries or fraises des Bois-tiny little elongated fruits from Europe that are similar to the little wild strawberries that grow in the United States but are bigger and easier to pick. You have to grow a great many plants to have more than a sprinkling of fruit to top a bowl of cereal or a whipped cream-covered cake or a pie, but a great many Alpine strawberry plants is not a bad thing to have. You have had excellent luck growing them from seed.
They do not spread by runners the way other strawberries do and so require less managing. They are also very pretty and can be used as decorative edgings in flower gardens as well as for a food crop. Best of all, they bear all season long.
Select a Site
First of all, you need a sunny spot for strawberries. It should also be a warm one, to support the plant’s escape from late spring frosts. These can nip the blossoms, turning their center black and preventing berries from forming. Thus when selecting a gentle south-facing slope, not a pocket that traps cold air. You need a spot with good drainage or the plants will rot and get diseases. If your drainage is not excellent consider growing strawberries in raised beds.
A vegetable garden is a good place for strawberries if you can spare even as little as 60 square feet. You can also grow them among fruit trees as long as the berries get enough sun. You might plant two rows of fruit trees with an avenue between them and a path down the center, then edge the path with strawberries.
Also, if you’re space is very limited, you might grow a small crop spaced intensively in a raised bed or in one of those strawberry barrels or pyramids you see advertised. While these look charming on a terrace, however, don’t expect the kind of yield you would get from a bonafide strawberry patch.
Soil Required for Strawberry
In addition to needing a well-drained site, strawberries need soil that is fertile and very generously supplied with organic matter. Well-rotted manure thoroughly dug in, will accomplish both purposes. The pH should be a bit on the acid side 5.5 to 6.5. Removing all weeds from the site is of utmost importance, especially if you want to keep a bed going for a number of years.
Like many gardeners, you will learn the hard way what perennial weeds, particularly grasses, can do to a strawberry bed. It is best not to plant on a spot where grasses or hay have been growing recently; instead, choose a more established garden area. You might even prepare a spot by growing cover crops and turning them under for a year or two before planting.
Planting a Strawberries
Strawberries are normally planted in early spring, although in warm climates they can be planted in fall. Fall planting will give you a crop the first spring. Strawberries are available at most garden centers. Where they are grown in flats, just like vegetables, however the most inexpensive way to buy them is bare-root, in bundles.
Strawberries may carry viruses that will ruin the crop and be hard to eliminate from your garden, so unless you have a very good local source, order strawberries by mail from a reputable company that will certify them as disease-free stock. One-year-old plants will usually bear just as soon as ordered ones, and they are cheaper.
Well, you can start with 25 plants, since you do have to fuss with strawberries a bit it’s best not to overextend yourself. In any case, 25 plants will perhaps be all you will need because each mature plant will produce as much as a quart of berries. If you find you enjoy strawberries growing a lot and want to freeze them or make jam, add more plants of several different varieties in subsequent years.
If the plants arrive before planting time, put them in the refrigerator with the plastic wrapping open, and keep the packing around the roots slightly moist. Moreover try to plant them as soon as possible, or at least heel them into the ground. Take special care not to let the roots dry out at any time.
When you’re soil is thoroughly prepared, mark out some nice straight rows. Although there are several different ways to arrange a strawberry plot, depending on how you want to manage the subsidiary plants that form on the runner, they all start with straight rows. If you watch the way strawberry plants grow, you will see that the original plant that you put in the ground, called the mother plant, soon puts out long thin stems; these are the runners.
When they get to be about 9 inches long they turn up at the tips and put down roots, forming daughter plants. If left to their own devices the daughters send out their own runners and produce granddaughters and pretty soon what you have is a thick, unproductive ground cover. So some form of birth control is always needed with strawberries.
If you are a laissez-faire kind of gardener, try the matted-row system. The plants are set out about 18 inches apart in rows 3 to 4 feet apart and are allowed to send out as many runners as they want. To keep the space between the rows from filling up with plants, go to your path after harvest and get rid of the outermost plants on each side of a row, either by removing granddaughters individually by snipping the runners and digging up the little plants or just by running a mechanical tiller between the rows.
When you are done, the row should be only a foot or two wide. It is also a good idea to remove some of the mother plants from within the row. Leave the newest ones, which will bear more vigorously the following season. If you remove as much as 75% of the vegetation, your patch will be better for it.
If you are a meticulous kind of gardener, you will like the spaced-row system. Here you set the strawberry plants at least 18 inches apart and remove some of the runners from each so that their only four to six of them spaced at least six inches apart. Some rather compulsive growers even reposition the daughters to make the spacing more even. In future years, keep removing older plants so there is always at least six inches of space around each of the remaining ones.
The last method is for tidy gardeners, it is commonly and rather misleadingly called the “hill system”. So no true hills are involved, however, you simply set the plants fairly close together 12 inches apart in every direction if fine, 18 if you have plenty of space, and remove any and all runners that form. This forces the mother plant to put its energy into fruiting rather than making runners, though it will form multiple crowns.
You can make single rows, or space the plants equidistant from each other in a grid but don’t make the patch so wide that you can’t reach into it easily from the outer edge. If you have to step into you’re patch at picking time you will squash a lot of precious berries. Eventually, the mother clumps will get too dense, so if you are growing you’re own replacement plants you will want to let just some runners grow and form new plants. This method works particularly well for the day-neutral strawberry varieties, which tend to produce fewer runners anyway.
Moreover, whatever kind of spacing you use for strawberries always set the plants into the ground the same way. The roots should be spread out but pointing downward. The best way to do this is to dig a cone-shaped hole with a smaller cone of the earth in the center of it, then drape the roots over the earth cone, rather like the way daylilies are planted, but with only one plant per hole.
Be absolutely sure that the crown the place where the roots join the stem is exactly at the soil surface too deep, and the crown will rot; too shallow, and the roots will dry out. Also, be sure to firm the soil well around the roots. Water thoroughly. If your soil is not very rich you can use a weak liquid fertilizer solution at planting time.
The first year, little spring-planted strawberries will produce some flowers but these should be pinched off so that the plant will put its energy into growing and producing a fine crop for next year. Mulch between the plants and between rows will help conserve moisture and keep down the weeds, and winter mulch laid over the plants may be necessary. You can use the same material for both purposes something light such as straw or salt hay.
Apply the winter covering about Thanksgiving time, or whenever hard frosts are a regular occurrence, and then brush it aside to expose the plants at blossom time. Don’t take the mulch away, though leave it next to the plants and use it for a quick emergency cover if late frosts threaten or for covering the ground under ripening berries to keep them clean and rot-free.
Moreover, top-dress the plants once a year at blossom time with rotted manure, compost, or a balanced fertilizer like 15-15-15. If the weather is dry, make sure the plants get an inch of water per week, especially when flowering and forming fruit. And be sure to keep up with the weeds, removing them while they are still tiny, especially if you haven’t mulched them.
With June bearing strawberries it is also a good idea to cut off the foliage right after the harvest. Timing is important either cut plants down as soon as you’re crop is finished or not at all, otherwise, there won’t be enough time for new leaves to grow and nourish the plants for the rest of the season. In a small patch, you can cut plants down with sheers; in a large one use a scythe, a sickle, or a power lawnmower set so that the plants are cut back to 1 ½ inches tall. Then fertilize and water deeply.
One decision you will have to make no matter what growing method you use is how long to keep a patch going. If there are a lot of disease problems in you’re area you may find that starting a brand new crop in a different part of the garden every year will keep the plants much healthier.
But you will always need to have two patches going at once. While one patch is produced another one will be growing to replace it the next year. It’s up to you how you manage your patches. If your plant never gets the disease and you are not much interested in trying new varieties, you may prefer to just keep the same patch going by removing the older plants each year.
Pests and Diseases
You will assuredly have some problems with birds eating your ripe strawberries, and possibly with chipmunks as well. If your crop is big you may not lose enough for that to make much of a difference, but if it is a small one you should protect it. Birds can be deterred by plastic netting, cheesecloth, or agricultural fabric. These will provide some measure of protection against chipmunks too, as will a series of chicken wire-covered wooden frames.
White grubs in the soil, especially those of June bugs, can eat the plant’s roots. If your plant wilts suddenly even when it’s not dry, pull one up and see if the root system looks damaged. The best way to deal with grubs is to avoid planting in areas where sod has recently been growing. If you still get them, try pouring a weak kerosene solution of one tablespoon of kerosene into a cup of water on the soil around the plants.
Moreover, rotating your strawberries with other crops will help keep both insect and disease problems under control, but take care that you don’t plant them where tomatoes and other Solanaceae have grown recently or melons, raspberries, mint, or roses. These can all harbor verticillium wilt, which wilts plants and stunts their growth.
It is also very important when growing strawberries to remove all plant debris from the patch because it can rot and harbor fungus disease. This includes berries that you don’t pick because they are overripe or have been nibbled or otherwise damaged. Toss these into a separate basket and destroy them.
Another disease to watch out for is red stele, a fungus that rots the strawberry’s roots. Both verticillium and red stele are cool climates, and cool-weather diseases. Botrytis fungus and other rot diseases are best fought by good sanitation and thorough picking. Virus-infected plants must be destroyed, and the place where they have gowns should not be used for strawberries for a number of years.
In fact, it’s best to wait a while before growing strawberries anywhere following a virus attack. Virus diseases are difficult to identify, so it is advisable to consult your extension service if you’re plants are doing poorly and you can’t pinpoint the problem yourself. Fortunately, there are now varieties that resist strawberry diseases and have noted some with good general disease resistance.
Harvesting You’re Crop
Strawberries can be harvested the second year after planting. With June-bearing ones this will mean waiting for about fourteen months for your first crop, but in climates where fall planting is safe, your crop should be ready the following June. Wait for the berries to be fully red, not green at the tip before you pick them. Resist the temptation to beat the birds to the strawberries by picking them almost ripe.
They will not ripe well off the vine. Strawberries, despite their bright color, can be hard to find; lift the foliage up to see those hiding underneath. Never grasp the berry itself when you pick, because it is easily bruised instead pinch or snip the stem. Collect and store the berries in shallow containers, in a layer no more than 5 inches deep or the weight will crush those on the bottom.
Varieties of Strawberries
There are so many strawberry varieties available that it is sometimes hard to know which to choose, but here are some guidelines. The most popular ever-bearing strawberry is “Ozark Beauty” good for most regions. Some other cold-hardy everbearing varieties are “Fort Laramie” “Superfection” and “Ogallala”.
Those with more disease resistance than ‘Ozark Beauty’ include ‘Ogallala’ and ‘Quinault’. The best day-neutral varieties are ‘Tristar’ and ‘Tribute’ both fairly disease resistant. There are also so many varieties available, but it is highly recommended to consult you’re Extension Service for your specific area.