Strawberry Farming: Grow Your Own Strawberries

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PHOTO: B. REYNOLDS
Everyone loves a good strawberry. Especially one you grow yourself!

Little cellophane packages of out-of-season, greenish-red,
sunken-skinned strawberries are selling at the grocery for
$2.79 per pound. I’m not exactly sure why they are selling.
In fact, even when strawberries are in season for a few
weeks early in the spring, the flavor of these shipped-in,
underripe commercial varieties is nothing to brag about.

While these sad excuses for strawberries are moldering in
the exotic food section next to prickly pear cactus leaves,
Carambola, and litchi berries, I am at home nibbling on a
tantalizing, bright-red, sun-ripened, lightly-sweetened,
partially-thawed, bowl of round little berries that went
from my berry patch to the garage freezer in a matter of
minutes–thus retaining perfect color, high nutrient
content, and flavor that makes you close your eyes in
ecstasy. Microwaved for a minute or two on high, then
broken apart in a bowl and spooned over vanilla ice cream,
or dribbled over hot shortcake biscuits, or merely tucked
in a cheek to slowly melt, releasing summer’s sun soaked
flavor–there aren’t many things that can top the taste
of home-grown strawberries. Strawberry farming is endlessly rewarding.

Now that I have finished my sales pitch, I have to admit
that to get to the “Let’s eat!” stage there is a bit of
preparation and work to be done–but the results
…the results.

Researching Strawberries

Looking through a magazine one day, I noticed an offer for
a now out-of-date strawberry catalog, and ordered it out of
curiosity. I’d been toying with the idea of starting a
backyard patch but had no idea how to start. When the
catalog arrived with dozens of listings of berry varieties,
I read each description carefully.

First, I eliminated those varieties whose claim to fame was
gigantic size or excellent shipping quality. The larger
berries weren’t always disease-resistant, and the
commercial varieties promised firm but less flavorful
results. Several kinds did well in the Midwest where I
farm, and many of those were praised for their freezing
quality.

As my choices narrowed, I chose a fool-proof variety that
promised to grow in most climates, in most soils, under
most any weather conditions and purchased my first batch of
Surecrop berry plants.

After several droughts and a number of floods, we made the
decision to switch from the dairy and feed business to
raising cattle and more profitable crops. It was clear that
during the several years it would take to build our new
business into a money-making venture, added income would be
necessary. I’ve always been a stay-at-home mom,
substitute teaching, giving classes in wreath-making,
doing freelance writing. This was an opportunity to try
something new. With hundreds of acres of open farmland
around our home, there was room to expand our small family
strawberry patch and open a U-Pick strawberry patch.

Choosing and Preparing a Good Growing Spot

Preparation is minimal, but important. One important thing
to remember when raising strawberries is that they need
full sun. They also need a soil that will drain well. The
ground needs to be well-worked, preferably in the fall
preceding your spring planting.

Fall plowing gives the freshly-broken soil time to
continually thaw and freeze during the winter months,
breaking down the large lumps and sod clumps that will
occur from plowing virgin soil. It also helps rid the
ground of white grubs, which, if they occur in large
numbers, can do severe damage to plant roots.

Of course, if you plan to plant an area that has been
previously gardened, the ground can be worked in the
spring–but berry plants need to be planted so early
in the year that the ground is often still too wet to do
much cultivation. Try to have the ground worked and ready
in the fall if you don’t have a plow, you will need to
spade the area to a depth of at least 7 or 8 inches.
Disking or harrowing frees the soil from clods, and makes
planting much easier.

Our U-Pick patch is in a perfect location, as if we had had
it made to order. There is an old hay field near the house
which slopes gently to the west, providing excellent
drainage. Even after a recent three-inch rain, there were
only a few puddles standing amongst the plants. Berry
plants are quite disease-resistant, but soggy conditions
can damage their roots in a matter of days.

Locate your patch away from any tree roots. Tree roots
siphon off more underground water than you can imagine. You
will notice that any crop growing along a woods’ edge or
near a stand of maple trees beautifying the lawn will be
much shorter and less productive than the same crop a mere
fifty feet away.

Soil should not be too heavy, although the not-too-finicky
berry plants will grow even in heavy clay. Sandy loam is
ideal–but the ideal is not always obtainable. Adding
barnyard manure (one thing we had an endless supply of) is
good for the patch-to-be, especially if applied a year in
advance.

We purchased a soil alkalinity-tester at a local nursery to
make sure our soil was suitable for berries. Any reading
between 5.5 and 7 is desirable (although in California,
berries are grown on soil with a pH of 8!). We had farmed
some excellent hay here in years past, so we were quite
positive the soil was good–and, sure enough, our soil
tested at 6.5.

Finally, it is a good idea to change the location of your
berry patch every few years. This decreases the danger of
diseases building up in the soil. Insect populations will
also be reduced this way.

Just remember: plow up a new area and have it prepared the
year before you actually proceed with the switch-over.
Planting clover or soybeans in the area before it is plowed
will add a helpful dose of organic material.

Irrigating Strawberries

If you are simply planning on starting a backyard patch or
perhaps merely edging your existing garden with a few rows
of berries, then watering will not be a problem for you.
Berry plants need a lot of water, especially at certain
critical times during the growing season, and how you’re
going to water your patch requires some foresight.

We were in a hurry to start up our U-Pick operation, and we
planted our plantlets before we knew how we would water
them. Fortunately we were a physically fit family–and
became more so by the end of that summer–and were
able, at first, to run hoses down to the berry patch. One
of us filled watering cans as fast as possible, another of
us carried them down the rows, and a third person did the
actual watering.

The plants were tiny, it was cool and early in the spring,
and the amount of water they needed was small. It rained
intermittently. But as the rows started to fill in, it
became increasingly difficult to figure out where the
actual roots of the original plant were, making it almost
impossible to do effective watering.

We headed to Wal-Mart, and purchased several coils of
soaker hoses. After buying a used water tank from a
neighbor, we filled our pockets with quarters, loaded the
1500-gallon tank on the hay truck, and headed down the road
to the local water tower. For a quarter, you could buy 100
gallons of water. For under $5, we filled the entire tank.

We parked the truck and the tank at the top of the hay
field’s incline, connected soaker hoses, laid them gently
on top of the berry rows, and opened the valve on the tank.
Success! Now I could weed the garden, do the dishes, freeze
the green beans–while cheap, life-giving water seeped
effortlessly from the black snakelike hoses strung out
across the half-acre. Every hour or so I’d have to haul the
hoses over onto the next rows, making sure they were
straight and lying directly over the berry plants. It took
a number of days to water from top to bottom of the large
patch, but the plants thrived through a number of rainless
weeks.

Farm chores keep my husband so busy that we have not yet
had time to hook up a more practical watering system. We
have two farm ponds nearby, but they are some distance from
the patch and to pipe from them would cost a lot. The other
option was to hire a bulldozer to re-dig the nearby pond
to make it more dependable in dry years. Either way, there
would be some cost involved. Add to this a pump and filter
to keep the murky water from clogging up the minute pores
of the soaker hoses and you have a very expensive
proposition. It will be the old technology for us, for the
time being.

However you decide to water your berry garden, be it large
or small, plan on giving it an inch or more of water every
week–more in sandy soils, less in heavy soils.
Berries are vigorous growers and need a lot of moisture;
foliage is thick and lush, and the berries are 90% water!

Pine-needle mulch and straw are good insulating mulches.
Not only does the mulch help keep the berries
clean–especially important in a U-Pick
patch–but the soil retains moisture and the ground
temperature remains even. The mulches also help discourage
weeds.

Wheat straw is a nice, fluffy, easy-to-spread mulch, but
its lightness makes it a helpless target of the wind. I’ve
spent hours mulching my patch only to have a strong wind
come up in the night and blow it all off. Once it is rained
on, the straw will be heavy enough to remain in place. You
can also rake some dirt clods onto it.

Strawberry Varieties

I love to read the affectionate names that have been given
to strawberries: Sparkle, Cardinal, Jewel. Some, such as
Surecrop, Honeoye, Earliglow, and Sparkle are more common
and are found in many nursery and seed catalogs. These are
all-purpose berries that are successfully grown in many
parts of the country.

All berries are divided into the following categories:
early, mid-season, late mid-season, late season, and
everbearing. Earliglow is the very first berry to ripen,
and is a common variety found in U -Pick patches, despite
its small size by the end of the picking season and the
fact that it is less winter hardy. All other berries are
compared to Earliglow when ripening dates are listed, with
some varieties turning red up to two weeks later.

By choosing a number of varieties, you can make your
picking season last much longer. Everbearing varieties are
very labor-intensive and don’t compare to the productivity
of regular varieties. They bear a little here and there all
year, with heavier crops in June and again in the fall.

Also note which varieties are susceptible or resistant to
various root, leaf, and berry diseases. Professional fruit
catalogs will give you this information. For a sampling of
available varieties, see the list at the end of the article.

Ordering Your Strawberry Plants

The more plants you order from a berry catalog the less you
pay per plant. It was actually cheaper for me to order too
many plants and give some away than to order exactly what I
needed. For example, 25 plants of the everbearing variety
Tribute, can be purchased for a little over $12, plus
postage and handling. That’s about 48 cents apiece.
However, buying 1,000 of the same plant costs you only
$122–or about 12 cents each! If possible, get
together with other interested berry-growers and combine an
order. It can really save you money.

A really nice thing about ordering berries through these
catalogs is that you can decide on the shipping date
yourself. You could plan a mini-vacation around the
proposed planting date, or at least, be perfectly prepared
for planting the day before your order arrives. If
unforeseen circumstances arise, you can also call and
reschedule your shipping date up to a certain point.
Usually a full week’s notice is required if you want them
to delay your shipment.

Ready to Plant

You’ve selected the best variety for you and your area;
you’ve carefully chosen and prepared your patch site;
you’ve phoned in your berry order (or if you just wanted a
few plants, you’ve picked some up at your local nursery
center). Next step: planting!

An important ingredient to the success of your planting is
how you take care of your young dormant plants when they
arrive in the mail. The plants should be set out right
away, if possible. Plantings dates are March or early April
in our area, but farther north it may be April or May. In
the south, make it February or March. The earlier you
plant, the better the plants will do, as they will become
well-established before the heat of late spring arrives. A
light frost will not hurt the plants.

If you can’t set out your plants immediately, which I could
not do because of terrible, rainy weather–make soup
out of the leftovers in your fridge, get rid of the moldy
oranges, and–make room for berry boxes. We had three
big boxes containing 1500 plants in our fridge, with one
box stored on the front porch where I hoped it would be
cool enough.

There was a definite difference between the refrigerated
plants (moist plump roots) and the plants sitting outside
in the cold, dry air (light-colored dry roots). In the end,
they all grew; I treated them well enough. If you can’t
keep them refrigerated or cool, try heeling them
in–setting them in a temporary trench in–the
ground outdoors. However, this causes the plants to go
through a second shock later when they must be lifted and
transplanted yet again.

Preparing the Strawberry Plants

This is simple. Submerge the plants in a bucket of water
and let them soak up moisture just before planting. This
next step isn’t required, but I took a scissors and snipped
off any long, scraggly or broken roots. This took very
little time, and it made it much easier to plant–I
had a neat little bundle of sturdy roots ready to spread
out in the holes.

Put 50 to 100 at a time in the bucket of water, leaving the
remaining plants in the refrigerator to protect them from
sun or wind or drying heat. Keep the plants in the bucket
submerged at all times.

Spacing the Strawberries

Strawberries spread by means of runners–baby plants
that spread from their mothers on little “umbilical cord”
stems. These plants take root and in turn become mothers,
to new babies. This goes on all summer, with each plant
making up to 15 or more runners. When you are planting your
tiny dead-looking little plants in the spring you need to
keep that fact in mind.

There are several acceptable methods of spacing berry
plants. In trying to cut costs, we decided to disregard the
berry catalogs’ suggestions of planting berries 18 to 24
inches apart, in rows 3 feet apart.

We eventually found that it was best to set the plants 36
inches apart, in rows three feet apart. By the end of the
summer, there was barely walking space anywhere in the
patch. Now you might think that a mass of luxuriant,
intertwined runners would he productive and desirable, but
it isn’t. Placing the new plants any closer than 36 inches
produces overcrowding, which seriously decreases production
and size of berries. A thinner row produces larger berries
because more sun is made available per plant.

Any runners that are formed during the fall are considered
weeds and should be cut off. There are even special
commercial machines produced just for this purpose. The
fall runners are too small to have a fruiting capacity, but
are, all the same, using up soil nutrients. In fact, one
drawback of one of my favorite berry varieties, Surecrop,
is that it is a heavy producer of runners. It spreads so
quickly that row rejuvenation must be done more frequently
than with other varieties.

The matted-row method of planting is another alternative
and is used by some commercial growers. It consists of
allowing more runners to “set,” forming rows that are up to
two feet wide. Experiments indicate that the narrow-row
system out-yields the matted-row method; but matted-row
patches are more adapted to mechanized farming, which
reduces cost per acre. Also, with more plants in one area,
losses to drought, disease, severe winters, etc., are not
as tragic.

As the runners grow and spread, try to move them–they
don’t root right away–back into the rows so that a
walking path remains. If you have too many, as I did, find
a friend who needs some plants, and either sell them or
give them away.

Planting the Strawberries

This is one area that all berry specialists, catalogs,
articles, and direction booklets agree on–in fact,
there is always a helpful life sketch alongside the berry
information, showing the “too deep,” “too shallow,” and
“just right” level at which to plant your berries. The
roots need to be completely covered–but the crown
cannot be, or the entire plant will rot. You must take a
little extra time to do this right, or all of your time
will be wasted. I like to dig a hole then make a conical
mound of dirt in the middle of it. I set the plant on top
of this mound, spread the roots out evenly, and train them
down the sides of the “mountain.” Then I fill the hole in
with good dirt, press firmly, and check to make sure the
crown (the fat little bump just above the roots) is
showing. After watering, make sure the roots are still
covered. If your dirt is soft, the water may wash away some
of your soil. Exposed roots will also kill the plant.

Planting berries in black plastic or spun bonded fabric
covers is becoming popular, and there are many advantages
to this method: few weeds, conserved moisture, clean
berries, earlier harvests. To plant, poke holes in the
plastic at proper intervals and carefully insert your
plant. However, doing it on a large scale would be
expensive and watering would not be a simple task.

After-Planting Care: Blossom-Snipping

This is such a gloomy activity that some folks can’t bring
themselves to do it. Your new plants have grown large and
lush. They are healthy, strong, and full of vigor. And now
they are blossoming; pretty white blooms spread across your
patch like a flurry of summer snowflakes …and you must
pick them all off. De-blooming actually allows the plants
to grow much faster and produce more runners for a good
picking bed next spring. If the plant tries to form berries
so soon after planting, its energy will be sapped and its
overall growth will slow. Of course, you can leave a few
plants blooming to make some berries if you just can’t wait
until next year, but you will notice the difference in size
between the berry-making plants and the runner-making
plants. I take a small scissors, walking up and down the
rows every few days, snipping off the entire blossom stalk.
Berries blossom over several days, so this has to be done
several times.

Fertilizing Strawberry Plants

I’ve made the mistake of putting too much cow manure on my
plants–they were the tallest, most lush, bushiest,
most absolutely beautiful plants you ever saw. It was like
a jungle, and I was showing everyone who came by my success
in berry growing.

But I hardly got a berry. Those that did form succumbed to
the gray mold, a disease that attacks berries, especially
in cool damp conditions. From this embarrassing experience,
I learned the hard way that too much fertilizer can be more
harmful than too little.

A good time to fertilize, if you really think the plants
need it (An 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 variety, but remember, they
grow well under most conditions), is in early fall, as this
is the time that the fruit buds, which determine the spring
crop, are developing.

Spraying The Strawberries

You can obtain a Home Fruit Spray Schedule from your local
extension office. It helps you determine what treatments
may be necessary to care for berry plants in your
particular area. Gray mold was the only serious disease
problem I’ve ever encountered in my patch, and this was
greatly reduced by using an electric weed-trimmer and
removing thick foliage that was shading berries underneath.
For this and other foliage diseases, benomyl and captan can
be alternately sprayed, unless you’re committed to organic
growing. 

Mulching the Patch

A nice covering of mulch to help over-winter your patch is
mandatory in the northern states. It is recommended in most
others. Before night-time temperatures reach 20 degrees or
below, apply about 3 inches of straw, pine needles, or
marsh grass. Some authorities suggest adding another foot
of mulch once the ground freezes hard. The mulch helps
maintain an even ground temperature and prevents the
constant heaving of unprotected plants as the ground
continually freezes and thaws. Leave mulch in place until
early spring, when the plants show their first signs of
growth. Then, push the mulch into the rows to help in
keeping the beds clean. This provides a nice path for U-Pick
customers to walk on and helps keep the berries from being
splattered with mud during a rain.

Keeping Birds Away

This is a problem you are very likely to encounter. Once
birds discover that there are red ripe berries for the
having, you will most likely have unwanted guests until the
season is over. One quaint solution is to scatter
red-painted pebbles throughout your patch before the
berries actually ripen. The idea is that birds will peck at
the stones and quickly lose interest in your strawberries.

Other solutions include laying netting over your patch
(convenient if your patch is a little one), and hanging up
those big yellow “scary eyeballs” here and there around
your patch. But putting them up after the patch has been
discovered is practically useless, which we found out after
a serious invasion of cedar waxwings descended upon our
ripening berry patch. They ignored the scary ball, a fake
cat, a garden hose “snake,” lawn chairs, and even us! They
are a fairly tame bird anyway, and being fruit-lovers, the
temptation of big ripe Surecrop berries was enough to make
them throw caution to the wind and attack, even while we
stood within yards of the birds, throwing stuff at them!
After eating all the red berries, they started in on the
pinks and whites. In the end, they were even pecking holes
in the green ones.

You can order a variety of sophisticated bird scarers from
catalogs. One machine fires shots at irregular intervals
from 1 to 30 minutes apart. Another, the Bird-X-Peller,
emits actual bird distress cries from speakers. You can
also purchase metal tape that blows in the wind to scare
off would-be diners. There is also a deer repellent
available.

Picking the Strawberries

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. You’ve set out
your plants, cared for them through the spring, summer, and
fall. You’ve uncovered them in this their second spring,
and have watched as leaves unfurled and turned a rich and
healthy green. This time, the buds that have burst into
bloom are allowed to remain. And by May or June, depending
on your growing season or your berry variety, you are
eagerly watching little green berries begin to turn white,
then pink, and then–RIPE! You’ve done it! You’ve
successfully grown a patch of delectable, healthful,
freezable, profitable strawberries. Reach down and pick the
biggest one you can find. Now, pop it into your mouth. This
is your reward.

As you continue to pick your crop, remember that it is best
to pick in the cool of the morning. If picked at the end of
the day, the berries will darken and age more quickly.
Don’t stack your berries over a few inches deep in your
container. And never wash the berries until just before
you’re ready to eat them. Damp berries spoil quickly.

Fall Care

No, you’re not done for the year. Once the berries are
finished producing and you have harvested all of your
berries, get out the mower. Set the blade on a high
setting, so as not to damage the plant crowns, and mow off
all the aging foliage. This will help control disease. Keep
watering your plants. Remember that early fail is the
plant’s fruit-bud production period. Even in winter, if it
is exceptionally dry, watering is important. And don’t
forget to mulch for the winter.

Fall plantings are possible. A friend of minutes has great
success with planlets that he dug from my overcrowded patch
and set out in late September. He does this every couple of
years, and says that because of the growth in the fall, and
the early start they get in the spring, he gets quite a
good crop of berries from them. If you do plant in the
fall, use closer spacing.

Rejuvenating Your Patch

Some folks never bother to do this. They either are
satisfied with increasingly smaller berries, or else they
allow their patch to eventually die out. You can leave your
patch undisturbed for up to five years and still have
acceptable harvests, but if you are attempting to sell your
berries to the public, you really should re-do your patch
every few years. One method that we have tried and found to
be quite simple is to till up the original rows of the
patch, leaving only a narrow strip of new runners in
between. By next year, these remaining plants will have
spread, and you will have brand new mother plants. Some
folks find it easier to simply order a new batch of plants
and start over in a new, weed-free area, especially if you
have let the grass get a foothold between your plants.

Hints for U-Pick Operations

Opening a patch for community picking is a pleasant way to
make money. Although the profit margin is not incredibly
large–you may be able to clear several thousand
dollars per acre–a public berry patch is a good way
to meet neighbors and discover other products folks would
be interested in buying from you–straw bales, cut
flowers, crafts.

Before letting anyone set foot on your property, contact
your insurance agent. You should be able to get a
by-the-month insurance rate which will protect you in case
of an injury occurring on your property. A sign saying “Not
responsible for injuries or damages” is of no real value if
someone decides to sue, though the chances of customer
injury are small.

You will need to set a price per pound on your berries.
Check around to see if there are other local berry sellers
and find what they are asking. In our area, you can get 65
to 70 cents per pound. A friend in northwest Pennsylvania
asks four dollars for a six-pound container, which is about
the same price per pound. To estimate how much money you
might make, count on each berry plant, or each foot of row,
to produce about 1 1/2 quarts.

Advertise your patch heavily the first season or two until
folks realize that you are in the area. Announce that your
patch will be ready for picking in about a week–and
then hope that the weather cooperates. This takes some
careful judgment on your part, and you may not be
completely accurate. Install an answering machine to take
the myriad phone calls you will receive from interested
folks asking, “When?” “Where?” “How much?” Put up road
signs at important junctions such as major highways,
intersections, and businesses that are relatively close by.
Be prepared to have a sign or two stolen.

Making a wooden carrier for U-Pickers is a good idea.
Design the floor so that it will hold the low cardboard
boxes that canned vegetables, alcoholic beverages, etc.,
are shipped in. Many stores will save these for you if you
ask. When the berries are picked, the carton is simply
lifted out of the carrier. With this method, there is no
need to squash berries by dumping them into another
container. Berry baskets may be ordered from the fruit
catalogs for about 25 cents each, or about $60 for a case
lot of 500.

Purchase small vinyl flags for customers to move along the
rows as they pick, planting the flag wherever they have
left off. One problem with U-Pickers is that they are after
the biggest and easiest-to-reach berries. You may want to
put up a “Please Pick Clean!” sign and try to gently get
this message across to your customers.

Be prepared for sales with a cash box, calculator, good
scales, paper and pen. You might also display other items
for sale–recipe sheets, magnets, crafts, booklets,
birdhouses, or other kinds of garden produce.

Yes, you will have customers. A lot of older folks remember
picking berries when they were young and enjoy the outdoor
activity on a pleasant spring day. They will bring their
grandchildren.

Remember–you have an excellent product. You rarely
meet a soul who doesn’t appreciate fresh strawberries, and
at under seventy cents a pound, your merchandise is quite a
deal.

Let the berries begin!


Favorite Strawberry Varieties

A small sampling of the dozens of strawberry varieties
available for purchasing: