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How to Grow: Strawberries
Learn about the best varieties and how to grow strawberries in your garden.
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How to Grow: Strawberries
I know it’s summer when I can go harvest strawberries (Fragaria). The sweet, juicy red fruits signal the beginning of the fruit season in my garden. I’m always amazed at how fast they grow and ripen. From small plants popped in the ground the previous year, comes a full bed loaded with green fruits that ripen to red almost overnight with warm weather.
When you see the price of fresh strawberries in the grocery store, you’ll be enticed to grow some of your own. Strawberries are great because you can grow them almost anywhere. They produce in a garden, a small raised bed, container, or even a hanging basket. While most gardeners are familiar with the traditional June-bearing varieties that produce in early summer and then are done for the season, newer varieties, called day neutral or everbearers, produce fruits from summer until frost. Most strawberries produce runners or above ground stems that have babies attached to them. These babies root in the soil and quickly your strawberry plants will fill out a row, bed, or the garden if you let them.
I also like to grow small, clumping types called alpine strawberries. These produce small, red or yellow colored fruits with an intense, sweet strawberry flavor. They make perfect kids garden plants because they produce fruits all summer long and are like hidden treasures tucked in amongst the foliage.
When to Plant
Plant strawberry plants in spring or early summer as bare rooted plants bought through the garden center or mail, or containerized plants bought locally. This allows the plants to get well established before winter’s cold. Alpine strawberries can also be grown from seed, sown indoors 6- to 8-weeks before your last frost date and sown into the garden in spring after all danger of frost has passed. It’s a less expensive way to grow many plants.
Where to Plant
Strawberries need full sun on well-drained, sandy loam soil to grow their best. On all but the sandiest soils, consider building an 8-inch tall raised bed, 2-feet wide to plant your strawberries on. The raised bed warms up and dries out faster in spring. Plus, it’s easier to weed, fertilize, and care for the strawberries when they’re grouped on a raised bed.
How to Plant
Amend the bed with compost prior to planting. Level the bed removing any stones or large debris. There are many planting patterns you can follow. I like to plant June bearing varieties in a matted row system. Space plants in the middle of the raised bed 2 feet apart in rows spaced 4 feet apart. Plant so the crown of the strawberry plant (the place where the roots and shoots meet), is right at soil level. If it’s buried or too shallow, the plants may die.
Day neutral or everbearing varieties grow a little differently. They don’t send out as many runners, so they’re best planted on a raised bed in staggered double rows. Space plants 12 inches apart in a double row spaced 8 inches apart on the bed. Space beds 4 feet apart. Space alpine plants 1 foot apart in beds or rows.
Care and Maintenance
In the June bearing beds, remove any flowers that form the first year so the plants can get established and ready to produce a big crop next spring. As the runners form on June bearing plants, select 6 to 8 of the baby plants and space them to fill out the 2-foot wide row.
For day neutral or everbearing varieties, remove the flowers for the first 2 to 3 weeks, then let some fruits set for a small fall crop the first year. Alpine strawberries don’t produce runners. Remove flowers for a first 2 to 3 weeks, then let them set fruit.
In spring, apply a balanced organic fertilizer, such as 5-5-5, to beds. Sprinkle it around plants but don’t hoe it into the soil, because it’s easy to disturb the shallow rooted plants. Keep plants well watered, especially after planting. Keep weeds away by hand weeding small patches and then mulching with a layer of straw.
This straw can also be used as a winter cover. Strawberry plants grow best if protected in winter with a 4- to 6-inch thick layer of straw placed over plants in late fall. Remove the mulch in spring as soon as the coldest weather has passed and new growth is seen. Use the mulch in pathways to keep weeds away and protect the fruits from splashing mud.
June bearing plants will tend to overcrowd the bed with their growth so need to be thinned or “renovated” each summer. Overcrowded beds produce fewer berries. Renovation removes extra plants, cuts back the strawberry foliage, and allows for new spaces for strawberries to grow and fruit next year. For small beds hand clip the strawberry foliage to 3 inches tall after harvest is finished. On larger beds, use a lawn mower to mow the bed. Collect and compost the clippings. Remove older, diseased, or weak plants to create a 1 foot wide row of berry plants in the center of the bed. Keep the beds spaced 4 feet apart. Add fertilizer to stimulate new growth and remove weeds as you clean up the bed. If you renovate your June bearing bed well each year, your strawberries can remain productive for 3 or more years before you’ll have to pull them out and start over. Eventually they will succumb to diseases.
Day neutral or ever bearing varieties will need little renovation since they produce few runners. They stay productive for a few years.
Alpine strawberries will eventually need dividing once they get overcrowded. However, mine have lasted years with little extra effort.
Strawberries have a number of disease, insect, and animal pest problems. It’s important to start with disease-resistant varieties to avoid common problems such as red steel and viruses. The soft fruits are very susceptible to gray mold, fruit rot and slugs, especially during wet weather. Keep beds thinned well so air can circulate freely and dry out the bed and fruits. Pick and destroy any moldy fruits to prevent it from spreading to other fruits. Slugs will eat holes in ripening fruits. Use traps, iron phosphate bait, or copper flashing on containers to stop them. Protect plants with row covers from damage by strawberry bud weevils (severs blossoms from the plant). Keeps weeds away from the beds to reduce the population of tarnish plant bugs that feed on and deform developing fruits.
Birds and chipmunks love ripen strawberries. Place wire cages over small patches and bird netting over bigger patches to prevent damage.
Harvest June bearing varieties the next June after planting. Start harvesting day neutral or ever bearing varieties about 3 months after planting. Pick frequently. Fruits will over ripen quickly and attract diseases and pests. Pick the berry just above the top of the fruit or cap by pinching the stem with your fingers.
Plant early, mid, and late season varieties of June bearing strawberries to get a longer season of harvest. ‘Earliglow’ and Annapolis’ are two early varieties. ‘Cabot’ and ‘Jewel’ are two good mid-season varieties. ‘Sparkle’ and ‘Winona’ are two good late season varieties. For day neutral varieties, ‘Tristar’, ‘Tribute’, ‘Evie 2′, and ‘Seascape’ are all good varieties to grow. ‘Alexandria’ is a good alpine strawberry variety.
Text excepted from the Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.
I’m Charlie Nardozzi and this is the Vermont Garden Journal on Vermont Public Radio. The English poet William Butler said, “Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.” What fruit was he referring to? It’s the strawberry. This native American fruit was collected from wild plants until the 18th century when Europeans fell in love with strawberries and started breeding varieties with larger fruits. Madame Tallien, a prominent figure in Napoleon’s court, was famous for bathing in the juice of 22 pounds of fresh strawberries. Colonial Americans had already fallen in love with this fruit. The native Americans would grind them up with meal and make a bread, the precursor to the strawberry shortcake.
While we’re most familiar with the June bearing strawberry fruit, two other types of strawberries are probably better for home gardeners. Everbearing or day neutral strawberries produce fruit throughout the summer. ‘Evie II’ and ‘Seascape’ are two newer versions of these berries to try. They don’t send out as many runners as June bearing plants, so they’re perfect for smaller spaced gardens. Alpine strawberries harkened back to the original wild strawberry. These small plants don’t spread by runners and produce sweet tasting white, yellow or red colored fruits all summer. ‘Alexandria’ and ‘Yellow Wonder ‘are good varieties to try.
Plant strawberry plants now in raised beds amended with compost. Space everbearing and alpine plants 1 foot apart in double rows spaced 8 inches apart. Pick off the flowers until the beginning of July to allow the plants to get established. Keep well watered, weeded, and fed with a balanced organic fertilizer. These strawberries also grow well planted in barrels, baskets or even self watering window boxes. Consider mixing them in containers with other flowers and small-size edibles such as parsley.