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.
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If there’s one fruit every homesteader and suburbanite should cultivate, it’s the strawberry. No matter where you live, you can find a variety that will thrive in your area (see “Recommended Varieties by Region” at the end of this article). Strawberries typically do best in cool, moist regions, but you can also grow them in hot, dry climates, especially if you adjust nutrients, provide proper windbreaks, and give plants plenty of supplemental water during July, August and September.
Strawberry Fruiting Habits
Strawberry varieties fall into one of several distinct fruiting habits.
June-bearers yield one large crop of fruit during the growing season, and the harvest period usually lasts for two to three weeks. Depending on your growing season and region, you can plant early-season, midseason or late-season June-bearers.
Day-neutral (sometimes known as “everbearing”) strawberries should be planted in early spring and will produce from July through October. They bud continuously, as they aren’t sensitive to changing day length. Breeders developed day-neutral varieties in California, so they’re a good choice for that region, but they’ll also do well in other regions with attentive watering, fertilizer and winter protection, such as straw mulch. Day-neutral varieties don’t always have flavor as remarkable as that of June-bearing varieties, but those recommended in our chart at the end of this article rate high for flavor.
Alpine strawberries, the closest descendants of wild strawberries, are often grown as borders or ground covers. Unlike other types, they can be grown from seed and will bear throughout the growing season. Their fruit is quite small and intensely flavored.
If you set healthy plants of any strawberry variety in the moist soil of a prepared bed in early spring, they’ll produce new roots in a few days, followed by several new leaves. Runners will begin to emerge from most varieties in June and will take root near the original plants. New runners will then grow from those, so a succession of new plants will quickly develop around the originals.
After the year you plant, your first strawberry crop will be the best one. Day-neutral varieties will achieve a quality crop during that first year, but for June-bearing varieties, delay fruit until the following growing season by pinching off buds, which will create flavorful fruit and ampler harvests.
How to Plant
Your strawberry plants will grow in the same spot for at least two years, so prepare the ground well. Choose an area free of weed seeds if possible. The shallow-rooted plants will receive all of their moisture and nourishment from the top few inches of soil, which should be light, rich, slightly acidic (a pH of 6.5 is recommended), and full of rich humus to help hold moisture even during the driest weather. Strawberries grow best in moist soil and full sun. Follow these steps to establish a new strawberry bed:
1. Till or fork the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches, removing weeds and roots. Work a 2-inch layer of compost into the bed.
2. To dig each planting hole, plunge a trowel straight down into the soil. Pull the handle toward you to open a slit in the ground. Fan out the plant’s roots and place them in the opened slit, situating the plant so the crown (where the roots and leaves join) is just above the soil line. Any deeper and the crown might rot; any shallower and the roots might dry out. Remove the trowel and tamp the soil with the heel of your hand. Give each plant a pint of water to settle the soil.
3. As the plants begin to grow, pinch off the flower buds, which otherwise would develop into fruit. Pinching off the buds will encourage the plants to put their energy into developing strong root systems and vigorous growth instead of into producing fruit. Your reward will be an abundant crop of large, delicious berries from healthy plants. Pinch June-bearers’ buds during the first year until flowering ceases. Pinch day-neutral varieties for four to five weeks after planting and then stop, allowing subsequent flowers to produce berries. If you pinch them off for too long, you’ll shorten the production season.
Strawberry Growing Systems
The matted-row system is an easy way to grow strawberries in a large bed. This system is also the easiest to manage. June-bearers are usually planted in a matted row, as they put forth more runners than day-neutrals do. Set the strawberry plants 12 to 16 inches apart in rows that are 3 feet apart. Let the plants put forth as many runners as they can. As the runners form, position them to put down their roots in a circular pattern around the mother plant. After you’ve established plants every 3 to 4 inches, snip off additional runners so the plants don’t become overcrowded. Although this system will yield a good crop, the berries will be smaller than those grown using the double-hill system.
The double-hill system is a versatile method that works for farmers growing long rows or for backyard gardeners planting in a small space. The hill system requires more management, as you’ll need to remove runners; some growers also use drip systems and incorporate plastic to suppress weeds. You can grow day-neutrals in a matted row, but they’re best-adapted to the hill system, as they usually don’t produce as many runners.
Begin by removing all runners from the mother plants, which will help direct the plants’ energy into budding. 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 at least 18 inches apart.
Caring for Your Strawberry Plants
A balanced fertilizer, particularly with nitrogen and potassium, helps deliver nutrition to strawberry plants’ shallow roots. Beginning in spring of the first year, fertilize your plants with an organic fertilizer according to the directions on the package. This will normally supply plants with all the nutrients they need. Some soils of the South, East and Midwest require extra phosphorus as well. In the Northwest, the soil may need applications of trace minerals. Fertilize and water plants in August and September to nurture the buds for next year’s crop. Fertilize again in spring to support soft fruit.
While the fruits are ripening, water your strawberries with about 1 inch of water per week. This watering regimen will produce large, juicy berries. Don’t overdo it — too much water at this time could yield large fruit with a watery, diluted flavor.
Adding plenty of organic mulch around your berry plants will suppress weeds and help keep moisture in the soil, which will protect the plants’ root systems. It will also reduce soil heaving in late winter and early spring. Straw or pine needle mulch can provide a more constant temperature, protecting against weather fluctuations. In areas where temperatures drop well below freezing in winter, having mulch in place can prevent severe damage, keep fruit clean, and maintain your crop’s health even during its dormant period. Apply 2 to 5 inches of mulch, using the higher amount for colder climates.
When will it be time to pick your berries? As most strawberry varieties ripen, the fruit changes color from white to pink to red. As the color changes, sugars develop in the fruit. Berries picked before they’re fully ripe won’t be as sweet. Pick in the cool of morning when the berries are firm.
Recommended Varieties by Region:
These varieties, all suitable for home growers, are known for their flavor and thrive in the following climates:
• South and Gulf Coast: ‘Chandler,’ ‘Camarosa’
• Mid-Atlantic Coast: ‘Earliglow,’ ‘Jewel,’ ‘Allstar’
• Northeast: ‘Earliglow,’ ‘Sparkle,’ ‘Honeoye,’ ‘Jewel’
• Midwest: ‘Jewel,’ ‘Allstar,’ ‘Honeoye’
• Southern Plains: ‘Jewel,’ ‘Earliglow,’ ‘Allstar’
• Upper Plains and Rockies: ‘Sparkle,’ ‘Jewel,’ ‘Honeoye’
• Northwest: ‘Hood,’ ‘Totem’
• California and the Southwest: ‘Seascape,’ ‘Albion,’ ‘San Andreas’
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.