Growing Strawberries

How to grow delicious strawberries in the home garden.

Strawberries are one of the easiest small fruits to grow in the home garden. They can be grown in hanging baskets, patio containers, window boxes, or just about anywhere you would like an interesting ground cover plant that produces edible fruit. Naturally, if you only have a few plants you are not going to get very many berries but 25-50 plants will keep a small family supplied with the fresh makings for shortcakes, waffles, or ice cream all summer long.

DAY-NEUTRAL BERRIES VS. SINGLE-CROPPERS

Strawberries come in three kinds, there are the single-crop plants that put on and ripen all their fruit within a few short weeks, day-neutral types that produce a steady supply of fruit all summer, and musk strawberries which are also single croppers.

Single-crop types can be early, mid-season, or late. By planting some of each type the season can be extended by several weeks. However, for the home garden, this is not really practical. One would need to plant a lot more berry plants and the harvest would still be confined to a few weeks in late spring and early summer. Unless you want a lot of fruit ripe at the same time for jam or freezing, it is better to leave the single-crop types to professional growers.

Day-neutral strawberries will continue to set and ripen fruit all summer long until a hard frost puts them into dormancy. Day-neutral refers to the light sensitivity of the variety. Day-neutral strawberries will blossom and set fruit no matter how long or short the days are. There was a time when day-neutrals were called "ever-bearing" and earned a bad reputation among gardeners. The fruit was usually small and sparse. Today there are several excellent varieties of day-neutral strawberries and they are a wonderful choice for the gardener who wants a steady supply of fruit instead of having it all ripen at the same time.

Musk strawberries are similar to wild strawberries and have fruits about 2/3 the size of more familiar types. They are very fragrant, have a slightly pineapple or raspberry flavor, and tend to be soft and perishable. They make a very attractive ground cover as the plants tend to put out a lot of runners. Unfortunately they do not bear well until the third year. They are also hard to find and if you do locate them they will be expensive and sold by the plant. Expect to pay $4-5 per plant.

HOW MANY PLANTS DO YOU NEED?

Strawberries are usually sold in bundles of 25 plants except for musk strawberries. Unless you are interested in growing musk strawberries or absolutely desperate to get some strawberry plants, do not buy potted plants. It is far better to plan ahead and order your plants from a reputable grower. This way you will be able to select the varieties you want, will get the best price, and they will be delivered at the correct time for planting in your area. In some parts of the country, farm co-ops will have bundles of plants, suited for the area, in the early spring. If you have such a store, check in mid-winter to see what varieties they will be ordering. Sometimes they will special order exactly what you want.

Expect to pay $8-10 per bundle of 25 plants. For a family of four order two bundles, a total of 50 plants. These will require a double row 25 feet long and 3 feet wide. By keeping the row narrow enough to reach into the middle from either side you will make picking easier and will not have to step into the plants.

PREPARING THE BED

The best time to prepare a strawberry bed is in the fall. That way you will be ready when your plants arrive in very early spring. The ground is usually too soggy to work when strawberries should be planted so if you have prepared the bed ahead of time you won't have to do anything but push aside the mulch layer and insert the plants.

Select a spot for your strawberry bed that receives full sun all day long. You can make a raised bed if you choose and this will eliminate any drainage problems. Till the soil about one foot down and incorporate lots of well-rotted manure or compost. At this time you can cover the entire bed with black plastic mulch or organic mulch to prevent weed growth. Black plastic will warm the soil earlier in the season and get your plants off to a fast start. Organic mulch will keep the soil cooler. If you have mulched with organic mulch in the fall, remember to pull it back from the planting holes in late winter so the soil will warm up.

If you use black plastic, be sure to get the kind that contains a UV blocker so that it will not deteriorate quickly in the sun. Black plastic mulch is excellent for strawberries. It keeps splashed soil off the fruit and discourages slug damage. When it is time to plant your new strawberries, simply make a small slit in the plastic and insert the plant into the soil. If you want the plants to runner and multiply use a heavy organic mulch instead or remove the black plastic after a few months.

PLANTING

When your bundles of new plants arrive, in early spring, unpack them immediately and inspect for mold or rot damage. The crowns should look healthy and there should be some green leaves beginning to unfold. These plants have been kept in cold storage all winter and some damage is normal. Untie the bundles, remove any bad parts and broken roots and trim about an inch off the bottom of the roots by cutting straight across with scissors.

Stand all the plants in a bucket with the crowns up and soak the roots in a weak solution of fish emulsion or 20-20-20 fertilizer until you are ready to plant. Do not soak more than overnight but at least a few hours. Do not cover the crowns with water.



Dig a planting hole large enough to accommodate the roots, slightly fanned out. Put each plant in the ground with the crown at soil level. Do not cover the crown or allow it to extend above the surface of the soil. Bring the mulch back around the plant. Space each plant about one foot away from its neighbors. Water the bed well after planting to settle the plants and force out air gaps.

DIS-BUDDING

DAY-NEUTRAL PLANTS - If you have planted day-neutral strawberries you will get a crop the first year. HOWEVER, it is absolutely necessary that you remove all flower bud clusters for the first five weeks after planting. It will be difficult to bring yourself to do this, but remember, by dis-budding you are forcing the plant to put energy into a strong root system and lots of leaves and this will mean more fruit later on. If runners (shoots that make new plants) develop, remove them.

After the first five weeks, allow the bud clusters to develop and set fruit. Day-neutrals will continue to fruit until a heavy frost stops growth. You can allow your day-neutrals to runner if you want the bed to become denser. Runner development will mean less fruit however, as some strength will go to making runners. Most day-neutrals are not known for runnering, but all do to some extent.

SINGLE-CROP PLANTS - single croppers should not be allowed to set any fruit the first year. Remove ALL bud clusters until they stop appearing. This will allow the plants to form strong root systems and be able to produce a large crop the following spring. Also discourage runnering by cutting or pinching them off until August. After August, allow the plants to runner and train the runners to make a dense mat of plants.

Musk strawberries are single-croppers but need two full growing seasons to establish. The first year pinch off all bud clusters and prevent runnering until August. The second year allow a few fruits to develop and permit runnering. The third season allow the plants to set fruit normally.

HARVESTING

DAY-NEUTRALS - Once the first fruit begins to ripen you will be able to pick berries about every two days. At first you will not get many but after a few weeks you should be getting a pint or more from 50 plants every two days and this should continue until late fall.

Pick only red ripe fruit for the best flavor. Berries picked too soon will lack flavor and be hard. Although strawberries will ripen after picking they will never have the fine flavor of those picked when fully ripe.

SINGLE-CROPPERS - Be prepared to pick berries every day for the few weeks of the bearing season. Pick only red ripe berries and allow them to ripen naturally on the plant.

POST-HARVEST CARE

For all types of strawberries, remove any rotten or bug-eaten fruit and dispose of in the compost pile. Try not to allow spoiled fruit to hang on the plants as this can encourage disease or insect problems. Keep your plants well-watered and feed occasionally with liquid fertilizer or fish emulsion.

SOME VARIETIES TO TRY

DAY-NEUTRALS - There are several excellent day-neutral strawberries available nationwide. One of the very best and one that is offered for sale nearly everywhere is Tri-Star. This berry will do well in almost every part of the country. Eversweet is another very fine day-neutral strawberry. Pink Panda is day-neutral and has beautiful dark pink blossoms. It is lovely as a ground cover or hanging basket and will runner heavily. However the tasty fruit is small and not very abundant and the plants are often expensive. A new day-neutral introduction is Seascape Strawberry, developed for the Pacific Northwest. It is only hardy to zone 7 but is a heavy producer of large, fine-flavored berries and is worth trying in other parts of the country in zones 7-9.

SINGLE-CROPPERS - There are many single-crop strawberries to try. Order a catalog from a reputable grower and select from the varieties best suited to your growing area. Ozark is a fine and reliable berry. Sparkle is a late-season bearer of bright red fruit. Stark Brother's Nursery has several patented varieties that produce extremely large berries. Of the Musk strawberries, right now there are only two types available in this country. Look to specialty nurseries that feature unusual fruits like Raintree Nursery in Morton, Washington or Edible Landscapes near Charlottesville, Virginia for Profumata di Tortona and Capron. Raintree Nursery is online and accepts online orders at www.raintreenursery.com.

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