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Strawberries might be the most popular berry in the United States, evoking cherished summer memories and visions of homemade jam or sundaes. Store-bought strawberries hardly live up to those sentimental expectations, instead rousing concerns about farm labor and pesticides. This guide offers everything you need to know to grow your best strawberries this season.
Fragaria x ananassa
6-8 inches tall
Full sun to part shade
Clay loam to sandy loam
Acidic (5.8 to 6.2)
Northeastern North America and South America
Non-toxic to humans and pets
How to Plant Strawberries
Strawberries propagate themselves through stolons that grow out of the plant's crown; thus, growers often follow suit and plant starts, then allow them to fill out a bed. Strawberry plots can produce for 3-5 years, so find a space you can dedicate to strawberries for several seasons if you choose.
Pick a site with soil that drains well. To suppress weeds, plant a cover crop of rye or sudangrass the season before you plant your strawberries. Avoid locations where Verticillium-susceptible crops were planted and undisturbed sites, as root-feeding grubs may be hiding there.
Growing From Seed
However, garden strawberries are hybrids, and there is no guarantee you will get the strawberry characteristics you loved. Some seed companies offer strawberry seeds for Alpine varieties and a few heirlooms, so if you are planning a large strawberry garden, this may be an economical way to start.
It is possible to grow strawberries from seed, but the process takes longer. You can even save a strawberry you really like, wait until it’s mushy, glean and dry the seeds, and plant them indoors in the earliest spring.
Growing From a Starter
In mild climates, strawberry crowns can be planted in fall, stay dormant over winter, and sprout in spring. But in places where the ground freezes, they are best planted in early spring.
The different types of strawberry growth habits determine how to plant them. June-bearing plants that produce abundant stolons can be planted early in spring with plenty of space between the mother plants (18-24 inches apart, in rows 36-48 inches apart). This is called matted-row production, and it works best with disease-resistant varieties. The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension recommends pinching off flowers to let the plant prioritize vegetative and stolon growth in the first year after planting.
Hilling, planting strawberries on raised rows or mounds, can help them avoid rotting in excess water, resist frost, and keep diseases at bay with good air circulation around the plants. The University of Oregon Extension recommends this method for the day-neutral varieties, as they produce fewer stolons, and suggests planting 2-3 rows of plants separated by 12-15 inches in beds with 2 feet of space between them. If you plant June-bearing varieties this way, you will have to trim stolons whenever you see “daughter” plants.
Whether you’ve grown them from seed or bought starts or dormant crowns, plant the strawberries so that the base of the crown is level with the soil. This ensures the roots don’t dry out, and the stems and leaves can grow freely.
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Although mulch may harbor voles and slugs, it is recommended for weed suppression, retaining moisture, and especially overwintering. Straw (make sure it has no seeds) can be applied before freezing weather, as leaves die back; in the spring, gently raked away from the plants, into spaces between plants or rows. Pine needles are an ideal mulch for strawberries as they add plant matter and some acid to the soil when they break down.
For everbearing or day-neutral plants, growers often use plastic mulch. In addition to retaining moisture, a University of California study found that plastic mulch also helps nitrogen stay where the strawberry plants can use it. Typically, this material is black, but for hotter climates, there is also a black and white type (used white side up) that reflects sunlight rather than overheating the soil.
Once your rows have been prepared and drip-lines put in place, lay out the mulch and secure it with landscaping staples, then cut an X where each plant should go (without nicking your irrigation and causing a leak), staggering them about a foot apart. Landscape fabric works similarly, but it also allows water to pass through, where black plastic does not. Paper mulch offers another weed-suppressing option that does overheat soil, is not petroleum-based, and is biodegradable.
Since this method is not intended to create a ground cover, trim the stolons as soon as they have “daughters” growing.
Strawberries can be grown in half wine barrels, terra-cotta strawberry urns, or fabric pots. Avoid overcrowding and don't let new plants start. Water in smaller amounts but more often, and fertilize after fruiting has finished, so plants can prepare for next year. For overwintering, place the containers close to your house for a bit of protection and warmth, and wrap the pot of sleeping strawberries with a blanket if temperatures go below 20 degrees F for more than a day or two.
Strawberries can be a very satisfying crop to grow, whether you eat them all yourself, sell them, or start a home-based jam business. While satisfying, they require some hands-on care and vigilance in order to thrive. Here are the most important care tips you'll need.
Light, Soil, and Nutrients
Most garden strawberry plants prefer at least 6 hours of full sun, but alpine strawberries can enjoy some partial shade. Soil pH should be tested and nutrients adjusted a year before planting strawberries. Adding organic matter, such as compost or manure, improves the soil's nutrients, its aeration and drainage, and its ability to hold water and nutrients. The organic matter also feeds the micro-organisms in the soil.
In the plants' first year, fertilize June-bearing plants weeks after planting and again in September, and thereafter fertilize just after fruiting has finished. Day-neutral plants prefer monthly feeding from June through September. Feeding the plants can be done by spreading dry fertilizer about 2 inches away from the plant, then raking it into the soil, and then watering.
Although 1 inch of water per week is a typical regimen for strawberries, your irrigation will vary by the type of soil you have, temperature, and humidity. Do not allow the soil to become soggy, as the crowns will rot, but owing to their shallow roots, strawberries are vulnerable to water stress and should not be allowed to dry out, especially while producing fruit.
In most locations, drip irrigation is the healthiest method and conserves water, and it allows you to set up fertigation—a system of distributing liquid or dissolved soil amendments via irrigation. A study carried out by the University of California Agriculture and Resources Department found that micro-sprinklers also produced healthy plants and excellent yields while still saving water.
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Pick a strawberry variety that is adapted to your region and likely to thrive. For example, some will overwinter better than others or resist heat.
Everbearing is a misleading name. This type generally produces fruit once in spring and then again in late summer.
June-bearing strawberries such as Earliglow, Honeoye, and Jewel produce fruit over a short, four-week season. These are best for making jam or freezing in big batches. They also create many stolons and will fill your plot nicely. They do not fruit in the first year they are planted.
Day-neutral plants like Albion and Seascape will produce all season, as long as the temperature is between 40 and 90 degrees F. They are particularly good for container gardening.
Alpine strawberries are day-neutral, smaller like wild strawberries, and have a burst of flavor. They don't mind a bit of shade.
Common Pests and Diseases
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Deer and birds can damage plants and fruit, but they may be deterred with reflective tape, row covers, fencing, or repellent sprays. Avoid any kind of netting as it can tangle and trap small animals.
Snails and slugs will chew holes in ripe fruit and leaves, allowing more bugs like earwigs to jump in and make things worse. According to the University of California Integrated Pest Management program, your best bet is to keep the area around the strawberries cleared of weeds, logs, boards, rocks, and wet straw mulch where they can hide. If necessary, use a pet-safe, OMRI-approved bait.
Rot, mold, and mildew may be prevented by crop rotation, row spacing that allows good ventilation, and watering early in the day so that leaves have time to dry off.
How to Harvest, Store, and Preserve Strawberries
Pick strawberries when they are deeply colored but not yet soft. The Penn State Extension recommends they be picked early in the day and cooled immediately so that they last longer.
Strawberries can be frozen, dried, or made into preserves that last beyond the week that strawberries stay fresh, so you can enjoy your luscious harvest for many months.
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