The Strawberry Strategy

Reader Contribution by Sherry Leverich Tucker
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If you are a market gardener it makes a lot of sense to grow strawberries. If you have children, it also makes sense to grow strawberries. Furthermore, if you love strawberry shortcake and strawberry jam it makes sense to grow strawberries. I haven’t tried to grow strawberries in awhile, but I’m back in the saddle, trying it once more with some new strategies.

It seems to be the new trend with strawberry growing to start in the fall with a mounded bed, about 2 feet wide and covered with landscape paper or black plastic. It is also typical to run a soaker hose underneath the landscape paper for watering when they are first transplanted, and then in the spring when necessary. Purchased strawberry “plugs” are then planted about one foot apart, alternated from side to side of the raised bed and fertilized with high phosphorus fertilize blend to encourage root health (for example, bone meal). These “plugs” are small rooted strawberry plants usually sold in 25 – 50 pack trays from nurserys specializing in them, usually costing approximately 50 cents per plant. The strawberry plants are then mulched before a hard freeze and left till spring. When the weather warms they are uncovered to bloom and bear fruit. After all the fruit has been harvested the strawberry plants are ripped out and the beds used for other crops until fall. Then the process starts over again with preparing new beds and planting new plugs.

I have a philosophical issue with this system. It goes against my nature to both destroy and put no effort in utilizing something useful. I cringe at the thought of pulling up and discarding those healthy strawberry plants simply because they are done bearing fruit, for they are perennials, just like asparagus or other berry bushes. Of course it is a whole different matter if they are diseased or too old to produce abundantly, then it makes perfect sense to get rid of them. On the other hand, if they are not pulled up a lot of extra work is required to keep them weed and grass free, plus that garden space remains unusable for a bearing crop during the entire summer. I can completely understand how this is necessary in large scale market or commercial farming, but for the small scale home gardener or market farmer I wonder if there may be a more sustaining method.

During this summer’s farmers market season I discussed this with a couple of my colleagues that have had a lot of success growing strawberries with annual plantings. I was curious about these “plugs” and what the advantage was of having them rather than using rooted runners off of the original mother plants, or using the mother plants for more than one season. I had remembered that when I was growing up my mother would grow strawberries and keep them for years. She would try to keep the row weed and grass free, but if that failed she would just replant runners in another area. I wondered why it wouldn’t be better to use these rooted runners as “plugs” would be used, or just reuse the mother plants.

So, for now, we have a small experiment. One friend kept one of his rows of strawberries through the summer. In the fall he cleaned out the row very well, cutting off all the runners and dead leaves from around the large plants in which he had planted from “plugs” the fall before. He said that was a lot of work, and he would of rather to have pulled them out, build new beds and replanted with plugs. It will be interesting to see what kind of crop these second year berry plants produce this spring. I am in hopes that the second year plants with increased crowns (the area that makes up the base of the plant) will produce even more abundantly than the first year. My other friend did not replant with plugs, but only used runners from mother plants and also left some of the original beds. All of the runners had touched ground and had rooted before being disconnected from the mother plant and transplanted into the new bed.

Another strategy that we tried was to pull up the plants after harvest and “heel” them in a holding area during the summer months so that the garden space could be used for other crops. I was given some strawberry plants in July and planted them in a small, shaded raised bed. This was to be a holding station for them until time to replant them in the fall. This may have worked during a normal summer, but the newly transplanted plants perished in our unrelenting 110 degree days!

This spring we will be able to see a comparison between the three different strategies: Planting bought plugs in a fresh bed in the fall, maintaining and using the plugged plants for more than one year, and planting a new bed using rooted runners from the mother plants. It will be interesting to see what kind of differences there are in plant health and harvest size.

This strawberry experiment is just an example of choices we make in our gardens every season. Deciding thru trial and error (or simply based on personal preferences) what varieties of plants to grow, or what method of planting works for your situation is important. As farmers and gardeners we are always challenged to work within parameters of cost effectiveness, ethics and time management. It is good to remember that what works for someone else may not work for you. Farming is full of variables. Consider the variances of soil (even within different planes of your own property) combined with the factor of climate zones, and constant weather fluctuations. Experimentation (or at least considerations of failure vs success) is a necessary process.

After this years strawberry harvest I will give an update on our findings. Which will, undoubtedly, lead to other questions and experiments! Please post a comment if you have any questions about strawberries or have techniques or comments to share. 

photo credit:  Sherry Tucker, one of my new strawberry plants from a plug, planted this fall.  The new leaves are coming out of the crown even though the original leaves were completely eaten by goats (another story in itself!).