How to Grow Strawberries in Your Backyard

Growing strawberries is easy, and they will give you a big return on little investment: fat, juicy, bright red globes that taste divine fresh or preserved in a basic strawberry jam.
Edited By Carleen Madigan
May 24, 2013
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“The Backyard Homestead,” edited by Carleen Madigan, gives you all the hardworking information necessary to turn your backyard in to a cornucopia of delicious, organic food.
Cover Courtesy Storey Publishing
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From growing fruits and vegetables to churning butter and raising chickens, The Backyard Homestead (Storey Publishing, 2009), edited by Carleen Madigan, has all of the how-to information that you need to make a wide array of food items. In this excerpt from Chapter 2: Backyard Fruits and Nuts, Madigan explains how to grow strawberries — the one fruit that she says every homesteader should cultivate.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Backyard Homestead.

If there is one fruit every homesteader and suburbanite should cultivate, it is strawberries. No matter where you live, there is a variety that will thrive in your area. Though they do best in cool, moist regions, but you can learn how to grow strawberries in hot, dry climates, especially where windbreaks are provided and supplemental watering is possible during July, August, and September.

Selecting the Best-Bet Berries

There are three distinct fruiting habits in strawberries. Summer-bearers produce one large crop of fruit once during the season, usually for about two weeks. Depending on your growing season and region, you can get early-season, midseason, or late-season bearers. Everbearers produce a crop in the spring, then either produce smaller crops every six weeks or so or produce one more crop in the fall. Alpine strawberries, the closest descendants of wild strawberries, are perennial and are often grown as borders or ground covers. Unlike the other types of strawberries, they can be grown from seed and will bear throughout the growing season. Their fruits are small and often intensely flavored.

The Best Strawberry Varieties by Region

The following strawberries are renowned for their excellent flavor.

South and Gulf Coast

  • Tangi (medium to large)

Mid-Atlantic Coast

  • Pocahontas (medium to large, bright red)
  • Raritan (medium to large, firm, bright red)
  • Surecrop (medium to large, dark red)

Northeast

  • Earliglow (medium to large, deep red)
  • Red Coat (medium to large, sweet, firm)
  • Sparkle (medium to large, dark red)

Midwest

  • Guardian (large, bright red)
  • Midway (medium to large, dark red, juicy)
  • Sparkle (medium to large, dark red)

Southern Plains

  • Cardinal (very large, rich flavor)
  • Pocahontas (medium to large, bright red)
  • Trumpeter (medium to large, bright red)

Upper Plains and Rockies

  • Cycline (large, bright red)
  • Dunlap (medium to large, dark red)
  • Sparkle (medium to large, dark red)
  • Trumpeter (medium to large, bright red)

Northwest

  • Hood (very large, dark red)
  • Totem (medium to large, bright red)

California and the Southwest

  • Tilikum (small to medium, soft, tart)
  • Tioga (medium to large, firm, shapely)

How Strawberries Grow

Strawberries require two years to produce the best fruit. If you set healthy plants in moist soil in a prepared bed in early spring, they will produce new roots in a few days, followed by several new leaves of normal size.

For most varieties, runners begin to emerge in June, forming new plants that take root near the original plant. New runners grow from the new plants, and in this way a succession of new plants is soon growing around the original.

Plants produce blossoms the first year, and these will develop into fruit if not pinched off. Pinching them off will encourage your plants to develop strong root systems and vigorous growth. Your reward will be next season’s abundant crop of large, healthy, delicious berries.

In the spring of the fruiting year, buds that developed the previous fall develop into blossoms. The first one to open on a cluster contains the most pistils and becomes the largest fruit with the most seeds. The next and later ones become successively smaller fruits.

Planting Strawberries

Because your strawberry plants will be growing in the same spot for at least two years, prepare the ground well. The small, shallow-rooted plants will have to receive all their moisture and nourishment from the top few inches of soil.

This soil should be light, rich, slightly acidic (pH of 5.5 to 6.0), and full of rich humus (aged manure, compost, or peat) that will hold moisture even during the driest weather. Strawberries grow best in moist soil in full sun.

1. Till soil to a depth of 6 inches, removing weeds and roots. Work 2 inches of organic matter, such as peat moss, compost, or well-rotted manure, into the soil.

2. Strawberry plants come in bare-root bundles. Before planting strawberries, snip the roots to a length of 4 inches, and pull off all but two or three of the youngest leaves on each plant. This action will reduce water loss when the plants are in the ground. As you work, keep the plants in a pan with a little water in the bottom and drape a damp cloth over them.

3. Plant by plunging a trowel straight down into the soil. Pull the handle toward you to open a slit in the ground. Fan out the roots and place them in the opened slit, making sure they don’t bend as you set them in. Then set the top of the crown just above the soil line. Any deeper and the crown will rot; any shallower and the roots will dry out. Remove the trowel and firm the soil with the heel of your hand. Give each plant a pint of water to settle the soil.

4. As the plant begins to grow, pinch off all flower buds. Pinch summer-bearers until flowering ceases in early summer. Pinch everbearers for about three months and then stop and allow subsequent flowers to produce berries.

Matted Row System

The matted row system is an easy way to learn how to grow strawberries in a large bed. Set rows of strawberry plants 12 inches apart. Let the plants put forth as many runners as they can. As the runners form, arrange them in a roughly circular pattern around the mother plant. Once you’ve achieved strawberry plants every 3 to 4 inches, snip off additional runners so the plants don’t become overcrowded. Although this system produces good crops, the berries are smaller than those grown using the double hill system.

Double Hill System

The double hill system is a versatile method that is also effective for growing strawberries in raised beds. To plant this way, begin by removing any runners from the mother plants. Set your plants 10 to 12 inches apart in paired, hilled rows that are themselves 10 to 12 inches apart. Space the pairs of rows 18 inches apart.

A variation on the hill system requires raised beds, usually of timbers, that are 24 inches wide. Fill the beds with sandy loam amended with compost or rotted manure and adjust the pH to between 6.0 and 6.5. Set plants in twin rows 6 inches from the edge of the timbers and 12 inches apart.

Fertilizing Strawberries

Beginning in the spring of your plants’ first year and continuing into fall, water every other week with a low-analysis fertilizer such as fish emulsion. This will normally supply plants with all the nutrients they need. In some soils of the South, East, and Midwest, extra phosphorus is needed. In the Northwest, applications of trace minerals may be required. From their second season on, fertilize the plants at the beginning of the growing season and when blossoms open.

Watering Strawberries

While the fruits are ripening, strawberries need about 1 inch of water per week. This watering regimen will produce large, juicy berries. Too much water at this time will yield large fruit that has a watery, diluted flavor. In general, moistening the soil in a way that does not get the leaves wet reduces the spread of foliar diseases.

Cold and Frost Protection

Mulch helps keep moisture in the soil, which protects root systems. It also reduces heaving of soil in late winter and early spring. In areas where the temperatures drop to 0°F (-18°C) without a snow cover, a thick straw mulch can prevent severe damage.

Harvesting Strawberries

When is it time to pick the berries? As strawberries ripen, the fruit changes color, from white to pink to red. As the color changes, sugars are deposited in the fruit. Berries picked before they are fully ready will not have as much sugar as ripe ones. Pick in the cool of the morning, when the berries are firm.

Basic Strawberry Jam Recipe

Strawberries and sugar, plain and simple. This basic strawberry jam recipe is beloved by all, especially when it’s made from handpicked, sun-sweetened berries.

2 quarts washed, stemmed, crushed strawberries
6 cups sugar

1. Preheat a boiling-water-bath canner, sterilize eight half-pint jars, and prepare the lids.

2. Combine the berries and sugar in a tall, heavy, nonreactive saucepan.

3. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves. Boil rapidly until thick, about 40 minutes. As the mixture begins to thicken, stir frequently to prevent scorching.

4. Test for doneness — 220°F (104°C) on a thermometer, or when the jam sheets off a cool saucer or spoon.

5. Remove from heat and skim off any foam that has formed during boiling.

6. Pour into the sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headroom. Run a rubber spatula around the insides of the jars to release air bubbles. Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean, damp cloth. Place lids in position and tighten screw bands.

7. Process in the canner for 5 minutes once the water has returned to a boil. Adjust for altitude, if necessary.

8. Use a jar lifter to carefully remove the jars.

9. Cool sealed jars. Check seals; remove screw bands. Label and store.


Reprinted with permission from The Backyard Homestead (Storey Publishing, 2009), edited by Carleen Madigan. Buy this book from our store: The Backyard Homestead.


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