Sharon Hull, This Week in the Garden | Start now for bright, delicious strawberries later – Santa Cruz Sentinel


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In the midst of rain and gloom, thoughts of summer fruit, especially strawberries, can offer cheer.  And here we are in strawberry country, where the fruit is one of our biggest commercial crops, assuring us that the plants thrive in our climate. If you have not grown these delicious berries yourself, perhaps this is the year to begin: bare root berry plants are available in the garden centers. Later in the year, potted plants will be available but the selection and the price will be much less attractive.
Bareroot berry plants bundled by the dozen and ready to sell. (Sharon Hull — Contributed)
A customer places bundled strawberries in bag for transport home. (Sharon Hull — Contributed)
What is involved in growing these perennial plants? They need sun, regular irrigation and excellent drainage. Traditionally, they are spaced at about 2 feet intervals in rows 4 feet apart but if you are meticulous about keeping your soil fertility and organic content high, they can be planted a bit closer together. Some gardeners like to hill up the soil to insure perfect drainage, and then irrigate in the furrows, preventing the berries from rotting. The plants also make a good ground cover, as long as shrubs and trees don’t block out the sun. Set the plants with the crowns right at ground level. Never allow soil to cover the crowns and avoid wadding the roots into the planting hole. Once new growth has started, apply a balanced organic fertilizer around the base of each plant. Water if soil begins to dry in the root zone but avoid saturated soil.
Strawberry plants are usually divided into three categories: everbearing, spring-bearing, and Fraise de Bois (or European). Everbearing plants flower and fruit throughout the growing season but do not bear heavily at any one time. For this reason, more plants are needed to provide a sufficient harvest. Many experts advise removing the flowers on everbearers until mid-summer so the plants can put their energies into growing rather than into fruiting – this will ultimately result in larger yields. Spring-bearing plants produce one heavy crop over a short season, locally usually in April or May. (In coastal areas, a second light crop may appear in the fall.) Spring-bearers depend on long winter nights to trigger flowering while everbearers are “daylight neutral.” European strawberries, often available as seed, bear very small but intensely-flavored fruit, reminding most of us of “wild” strawberries we may have picked and eaten as children.
In my own garden, I prefer to grow the plants in raised beds, lined with gopher wire. The fruit is less likely to mold or rot and the plants are easier to tend and weed. If birds or deer are a problem, it is then very easy to throw netting over the whole bed to prevent critters from taking an unfair share of the fruit.
One of my family’s favorites has long been the everbearer Seascape, with large berries of excellent flavor and sweetness. Developed at UC Davis for California climates, the plants thrive here, needing very little winter chill to set fruit.  And along the coast, the plants may begin to flower before winter is really over, giving you an extremely early crop to look forward to. Another family favorite, just as delicious and with excellent disease resistance, is the everbearer Albion with high sugar content. Both are daylight neutral, and are often grown locally by the farms specializing in organic berry production. Check your favorite garden center soon for bare root plants, usually sold in bundles of 12. If you long to grow your own strawberries, pay a visit to your favorite nursery now.
Garden tips are provided courtesy of horticulturist Sharon Hull of the San Lorenzo Garden Center. Contact her at 831-423-0223.  

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