By: Ron Kushner
Strawberries are easy to grow, from Florida to Canada and Alaska. They are native to most of the temperate regions of the world but the large-fruited, productive varieties originated in North and South America. Wild strawberries were found over much of Europe in the earliest days of recorded history but evidence of their cultivation didn’t appear until the 15th century in France and England.
In the early 1700’s, a cross between Chilean berries and those of North America produced the largest varieties cultivated commercially. Since the latter half of the 19th century, breeders have continually improved their quality.
Strawberries are broken down into three types: June bearing, Everbearing, and Day-neutral.
June bearing are the most productive type of strawberry forming buds in the fall and bearing sizable fruit on a single, large crop in late spring to early summer. In Florida and similar warmer climates, June bearing plants will fruit early, from March to April. Harvest usually lasts over a four week period. Do not allow the mother plants to produce the first season. Pinch out any flower buds that form after planting to encourage root development which will result in healthier plants overall.
Optimum fruit yield from June bearing strawberries should last approximately five seasons. After that time, fruit size and productivity starts to decline. The bed can be maintained by renovation. This process thins the bed of older plants, invigorating remaining plants that helps to maintain berry size. Thin three year old mother plants just after harvest. Clip the tops off plants remaining, fertilize with 10-10-10 and irrigate as necessary to keep plants moist but not wet.
Everbearing strawberries produce fruit over a longer period of time. A moderate crop in June and scattered berries all summer with another crop in late August. This type provides berries for fresh eating all season but with much less of a harvest than June bearers. The berries are not as large as the June bearing varieties. They are easily grown in containers and can be harvested the same season they were planted. They need a bit more fertilizer than June bearers, applied monthly from June until September. It is not recommended to renovate these berries. Simply replant them all every third or fourth year.
Day-neutrals are unaffected by day length. They are extremely productive and bear fruit from June through frost in northern areas (January through August in milder climates). Unfortunately, they are fragile, sensitive to heat, drought and weed competition, requiring more “tender care” than the other two varieties.
A deep, fertile, well-drained yet water-retentive loamy soil is ideal. If soil is poor, create a raised bed and fill with a good quality soil mixture such as peat moss, vermiculite and compost in even amounts. For best fruit production, they need full sun with late afternoon shade appreciated when it is really hot. Strawberries spread by runners called stolons (above ground stems). All strawberries perform best in slightly acid soil with a pH between 6.2 and 6.8. They won’t tolerate pH extremes below 5.5 or higher than 7.0.
They are shallow rooted and require regular irrigation whenever you can’t count on rainfall. Since they bloom early, avoid planting them in low-lying frost pockets. Also, to avoid the chance of Verticillium wilt, a soil-borne fungal disease, avoid sites where other susceptible crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, raspberries and blackberries have grown within the past three years. As added insurance, plant disease-resistant cultivars. If possible, begin preparing the soil a year before planting so that amendments have time to take effect. Eliminate all perennial weeds, then test and amend the soil for pH and nutrient levels. Adding compost will improve drainage and increase the water-holding capacity.
Strawberries are usually sold in bundles of small, dormant plants with a mass of wiry roots. It’s best to soak the roots in water for an hour and then plant right away. Set the plants in the ground deep enough so that the roots are entirely covered with soil. However, do not cover the crown as this can cause the plants to die. Also, do not clip the roots but spread them out full length and firmly anchor them in the soil. Water each plant as it is planted and water frequently during the first six weeks. You can plant in early spring, summer or fall. Containers can be planted any time during the growing season.
Plant each crown about one foot from the next either in rows or in a block formation. Keep weeds under control and keep the soil around the plant cultivated. Mulching with salt hay or chopped and shredded hay & straw is best. Do not fertilize in the spring. Wait until August or September when the fruit buds are developing. Fertilize lightly as too much can be more harmful than too little. 10-10-10 or any balanced fertilizer is recommended.
Harvest your berries in the morning before the sun gets too hot. The berries should be fully red, not green at the tip. They will not ripen further once picked. Pinch through the stem rather than pulling on the berry. Always remove all ripe berries and any infected or malformed ones to prevent disease problems.. Cull the moldy berries, placing them in a separate container for disposal.
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