Growing Strawberries

growing strawberriesGrowing Strawberries

Growing strawberries is the absolute easiest way to add fruit to your garden. Almost all of us love strawberries – whether slathered with whipped cream atop shortcake, dipped in chocolate, or just straight out of the garden and into your mouth – they are one of summer’s most beloved fruits. So it’s a great thing that strawberries are so easy to grow! Even if you have only a little space like a patio or balcony, you can still grow your own succulent, sweet strawberries at home.

General Facts About Growing Strawberries

While growing strawberries is easy, there a few things you need to know that will help you get the most out of your efforts.

strawberries in a whiskey barrelGrowing Strawberries in a Whiskey Barrel

Strawberries are a hardy perennial, which means the roots and crowns will live through the winter and come back year after year. (Though they will do better if mulched in areas with harsh winters.)

Not only do strawberry plants produce berries, they send out shoots called “stolons”, or runners, which will take root when they hit soil, and produce whole new baby plants. To me, this continual regeneration of daughter plants is one of the most fun things about growing strawberries.

But even though it is a perennial, an adult strawberry plant will only produce a good crop of berries for 3 or 4 years, at which point you can remove these “parent” plants and let their now-rooted and established “babies” from a couple of years ago become the main producers.

While strawberries do produce seeds (those little dots on the outside of the berry), growing strawberries from seed is pretty tedious, because it usually takes three years for a plant started from seed to begin producing berries.

So to speed things up in your first year growing strawberries, start with two-year old daughter plants available from nurseries – or even better – from a friend’s expanding strawberry patch that needs thinning.

Strawberries prefer a full-sun location (at least 7 hours of full sun per day), and slightly acidic soil, with a pH of about 5.5 to 6.5. If you aren’t sure what the pH of your soil is, you can either have a soil test done at your local state university extension service, or just do the easy thing – add a ton of compost and call it good.

Adding compost will not necessarily acidify your soil, but it will tend to make it more neutral, which will be better for growing strawberries than if the soil is too alkaline. You can never really go wrong by adding quality homemade compost.

It occurred to me that perhaps adding coffee grounds directly to the soil might help acidify it (since coffee is pretty acidic.) I’m a big fan of adding coffee grounds to the compost pile since they are wonderfully high in nitrogen, But when I researched it deeply as a way to acidify soil I found I was wrong. Studies actually showed that the pH changes after the application of coffee grounds were very short-lived.

Choosing Which Type of Strawberries to Grow

There are 3 basic types of strawberries (5 if you include some uncommon ones), and there are many varieties within each type. You should first choose which of the three basic types most appeals to you, and then go to a good local nursery (not a national chain) to find out which varieties of that type grow best in your area. National chains generally sell only a couple of varieties nationwide, disregarding local conditions.

June-bearing strawberries (also called “spring bearing”) bear most of their fruit in late spring and early summer. They generally make lots of nice large berries, as well as produce abundant runners that will root into new plants wherever they hit soil.

Because they make a bunch of berries all at once, they are probably the best type to grow if you want to make jam. The other types also work, but you would need to grow a lot more of them to get enough berries at once to make jam.

Everbearing strawberries are not really everbearing, but they do yield three crops of berries. The first crop is the biggest in late spring, followed a couple more flushes of berries throughout the season. Everbearing types also make runners, but not as many as the June-bearing type, because they keep putting energy into making more flowers and fruit.

Day-Neutral strawberries are actually the most “ever-bearing” of the three types. They produce consistent but smaller crops of berries throughout the growing season. Because they are so intent on continually making berries, they produce very few runners.

There are two other strawberry types: Alpine and Musk, which make small, infrequent, but intensely-flavored berries. They tend to be more finicky in their growth requirements, and are not covered in this article.

What Does "Day Neutral" Mean?

All plants have a biochemical way of measuring the length of the day. (It’s now known that plants are actually measuring the length of the night, but the terminology was already in place when botanists discovered that fact.)

Plants that flower and produce fruit when the day length exceeds 12 hours are called “long-day plants" (although they would be more correctly called "short-night plants".)

Plants that flower and produce fruit when day length is shorter than 12 hours are called "short-day plants" (more correctly called "long-night plants".)

“Day-neutral plants” don’t care how long the day is. They use a different measurement than day length to initiate flowering, such as temperature.

Before acquiring your new strawberry plants, prepare your garden bed, planter, or raised strawberry bed. As with all perennial garden plants, it is really important to dig out any weed roots before planting. It’s best to plant strawberries as soon as the ground can be safely worked in the spring. Don’t dig if the soil is too wet (water squeezes out when you squeeze a handful), or too dry (just too hard to comfortably get a garden fork or spade into.)

Getting Started Growing Strawberries

Strawberry Bed

This 3-tier raised  bed is perfect for harvesting strawberries as they spill over the sides.

Another option would be to grow your strawberries in the beautiful little 3-Tier Raised Strawberry Bed offered by Gardener's Supply (yes... that is an ad). Just an option.

If your soil is too dry, water it deeply a couple of days before digging which will make it much easier to use a digging fork to deeply loosen the soil and get weeds out by the root. Mix in your compost at the same time.

Now that your soil is ready and you have acquired baby plants of your chosen variety from the nursery or a friend, it’s time to plant.

It is very important to plant strawberries at the correct depth. You want all the root underground, but the crown, or part where the leaves emerge from the base, above ground. If the crown is planted too deeply, it will rot easily and you can lose the whole plant.

If you are planting in containers, make sure you use lots of compost, at least a third of the mix. This will assure that your pH is not too alkaline.

Plant strawberries a good 12” to 18” apart for best production. Check with the nursery or friend from whom you got your plants, for what the best spacing is. If it’s a type that makes a lot of runners, you’ll be glad you gave them more space once they get established.

I like to plant my strawberries in a hexagonal pattern rather than in straight rows, because I can put in more plants per bed than if I plant in rows, with less wasted space. Hexagonal spacing is when you plant in parallel rows, but stagger the plants so that each plant is halfway between where the plants are in the adjacent rows. In a vegetable garden, this works great, but when growing strawberries, they're going to end up all helter-skelter anyway as the daughter plants root where they will. But it starts off all orderly, so when I put in a new bed I do it anyway....

Maintaining Strawberry Beds

Pick berries as soon as they turn bright red all over (or yellow if they are a yellow variety!). If you wait too long, they will start to shrink towards the top and there flavor will turn, well... yukky. (The berry on the left in the photo at the top is past its prime, and starting to shrink at the top.)

Your first year growing strawberries it will be tempting to try to get as many berries from them as possible. But for maximum harvest the following year, pinch off flowers and/or runners (if you don’t want more plants yet) to encourage the plant to grow deep healthy root systems and leaves. This will translate into a much better harvest the second year.

(Patience is a virtue when you become a gardener, especially a gardener growing perennial plants!)

After your second season, you can let some daughter plants start to take root in between where you currently have the parent plants, so that in a year or two you can remove the original parent and let the new plant become the new berry producer and parent.

At the end of each growing season after that, thin the plants back to an original spacing of about 12-18 inches, keeping the largest "daughter plants" and removing the 3 or 4 year-old "grandmas".

This is a bit of an artform. Give unwanted, rooted baby strawberry plants away to friends (or even people in the parking lot at Home Depot...) If you live in a cold winter region, your strawberries will appreciate a good covering of straw, hay, or fall leaves as a mulch through the winter.

Dealing with Bugs and Diseases

Strawberries present an attractive feast for snails and slugs. Some say that a good mulch of well-dried straw may help prevent a “slug invasion”, or that a thin mulch of coffee grounds or crushed eggshells right around the base of the plant will be quite effective. While it's true than snails and slugs have a harder time navigating dry straw than a wet soil surface, it's also true that mulch makes a mighty good hiding place for slugs and snails to hangout.

The writer of the blog did a trial of natural deterrents and concluded that sheep's wool around the base of the plants or a ring of fresh or dried mint leaves seemed to work the best.

Strawberries are also vulnerable to fusarium wilt, a fungus disease often carried by tomatoes and peppers. Don’t plant strawberries in a bed that has had fusarium-infected plants in it, and don’t plant tomatoes in adjacent beds.

Apply some well-made compost around the base of your strawberry plants every spring, and you will be able to keep growing strawberries indefinitely.

If the birds in your neck of the woods discover your strawberries, you can cover the bed with netting available from nurseries or Home Depot.

It’s best if you can float the netting above the strawberries a bit, so that the birds don’t just peck through it. You can set out milk jugs between the plants to hold the netting up, or get creative and use what you have on hand. I like to use Reemay, a spun polyester fabric available at garden centers that works great for protecting plants from pests, predators, and tiny hail (if it’s not too big). I have had robins get trapped underneath netting, so make sure you anchor it around the edges with rocks or a ridge of soil.

And one last suggestion: one of the best things you can do for your strawberry beds is to make and apply aerobic compost tea. This provides not only nutrition, but a host of beneficial microorganisms that help boost the disease resistance of your strawberry beds. It’s a bit of work, but a little goes a long way, and it can be used on the rest of your vegetable garden too.

Have fun growing strawberries (and eating them too)!

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