Grow Sun-Ripened Strawberries

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Strawberries are one of the easiest plants you can grow in your garden. A harvest of 'Red Chief' shows off the eye-candy appeal of strawberries.
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There’s no denying the lure of sun-ripened strawberries
oozing with sweetness and flavor. Just catching a glimpse
of a rich, red berry is enough to arouse one’s appetite,
and if appearances alone guaranteed good eating,
strawberries certainly would win an epicurean gold medal
every time.

Unless you live near a retail strawberry grower, growing
your own is the only way to get that splendid strawberry
flavor so lacking in supermarket crops. Truly ripe, tender,
juicy strawberries are just too perishable to be found on
any supermarket shelf; commercially grown strawberries are
bred for firmness, size and long shelf life — flavor
is secondary. In addition, they often are harvested before
the berries even turn red, a practice that halts the
development of the berries’ flavor, but not their luscious
color.

Growing your own strawberries is also one of the easiest
and mast rewarding gardening efforts you can undertake.
These modest herbaceous plants need only a small amount of
space in which to grow, and they produce large yields
quickly. Right now is the ideal time to make plans for
growing your own, so here are some considerations that will
help you succeed:

Types of Strawberries

Perennial garden strawberries come in three main types,
defined by when they bear their fruit, according to Barbara
L. Bowling, author of The Berry Grower’s Companion and formerly a
professor of horticulture at Rutgers and Pennsylvania State
universities. They are: June-bearers (also called
short-days), day-neutrals and ever-bearers.

June-bearers, available as early, mid and late-season
varieties, are the most widely grown by home gardeners,
accord ing to Bowling. As their name implies, they produce
their crop in June. Day-neutrals, which are gaining
popularity, bear a modest crop along with the June-bearers
and then continue to produce fruits into the fall. “They
initiate flower buds regardless of day length, thus
producing some fruit throughout the summer and a sizable
fall crop that is a great bonus for backyard growers,”
Bowling says. Day-neutrals, though, generally do not thrive
in areas that have hot summers (upstate New York summers,
for example, are ideal). Ever-bearers, which sometimes are
confused with day-neutrals, bear from early summer into
fall but are less productive and have lower-quality berries
than the day-neutrals. Nevertheless, their ongoing harvests
have appealed to many gardeners over the years.

You can harvest berries from day-neutral and ever-bearer
strawberries the first year; June-bearers should not be
harvested until their second year. In many areas, if you
grow a combination of these types, you will be able to
harvest your own sun-ripened strawberries from late May to
October every year.

Best Backyard Varieties 

You should seek out varieties of these types that are
especially adapted to your region; to learn the names of
tried-and-true local favorites, check with your extension
agent. A few varieties are widely recognized as among the
best tasting and most disease resistant no matter where you
live. These include June-bearers ‘Earliglow’ and Jewel,’
and day-neutral ‘Tristar,’ according to Bowling. Her book
lists recommendations by region and includes a chart that
details the disease resistance of common varieties.

Among other popular recommended June-bearers, ‘Allstar’ has
become the standard midseason variety in the East and the
Midwest, ‘Honeoye,’ also a midseason berry, has a
“distinctive, perfumey” flavor, and ‘Red Chief,’ another
midseason berry, offers excellent disease resistance. Among
recommended day-neutrals, ‘Seascape’ is a large fruit with
good flavor for gardeners in the Northwest, and ‘Tribute’ produces large
berries on vigorous plants.

Growing Tips

Strawberries may be highly perishable, but they will grow
well in a range of locations; plants produce the best fruit
when grown in full sun and a slightly acidic soil (a pH
between 5.8 and 6.5 is ideal). They are nutrient-demanding
plants, so care must be taken to provide a nutrient-rich
soil high in organic matter. Choose a site with excellent
air circulation and drainage (raised beds are good as long
as the soil doesn’t dry out). Planting strawberries in rows
one-plant wide will help sunlight penetrate the entire
plant and increase fruiting. Avoid areas where tomatoes,
potatoes, eggplant, peppers or raspberries have been grown
in the past five years, as these plants can act as hosts
for verticillium wilt, which can attack strawberry plants,
too.

Grubs also bother strawberries by eating their roots, so if
possible avoid making a new strawberry bed where sod
recently has been removed. If the perfect site is nowhere
to be found, you still may avoid potential problems by
planting in raised beds and choosing disease-resistant
varieties, many of which are listed in Bowling’s book.

Prior to planting, remove all perennial weeds and till in a
1- to 2-inch layer of compost, applying it more liberally
where soil tilth or fertility are less than optimum. You
can use grass clippings instead of compost as long as you
wait a few weeks before you plant to give the clippings
time to decompose. To be sure the shallow-rooted plants get
off to a good start, this is one time when a fast-release
fertilizer is appropriate.

For most of the United States, plant strawberries in spring
as soon as the soil can be worked. In warmer regions of
California and the South, strawberries usually are planted
as annuals in late summer or fall. At planting time, keep
these three things in mind: Holes should be wide enough to
accommodate the roots, carefully fan out the roots as you
plant and be sure the top of the crown (the dense area
between the roots and stem) remains slightly above soil
level while the roots are well buried below.

Bowling recommends planting strawberries in a system called
“matted rows.” She says, “The strawberry’s perennial nature
is used to best advantage in the matted rows by allowing
the plants to be replenished with new growth each year.” In
this system, plants are spaced according to type (keep
reading), and runners, which are long, horizontal stems
that form small, “daughter” plants on the end, are allowed
to fill in empty spaces, renewing the planting as they
establish themselves.

June-bearers produce more runners than day-neutrals or
ever-bearers, and should be spaced 18 to 24 inches apart
with about 3 to 4 feet between rows. This spacing allows
the runners to root and eventually form a matted row. Space
day-neutral and ever-bearing types 5 to 9 inches apart,
with 24- to 30-inch aisles between each row. These two
types require a more constant nitrogen supply, so fertilize
them once a month from June through the first of September.

Growing On

When you get your strawberries in the ground and
fertilized, immediately follow up with a deep mulch of
straw, grass clippings or pine needles between plants.
Mulching inhibits weeds, conserves moisture, and helps keep
fruit clean and roots cool (especially important for
day-neutral types).

Water your new planting thoroughly and try to keep the soil
evenly moist as the season progresses; consistent moisture
is essential for strawberries’ shallow roots, which need
about 1 inch of water per week during the growing season.
That’s especially important in fall, when flower buds that
will turn into next year’s crop are forming. “The more
cells that are formed in the flower bud, the larger the
fruit will be,” Bowling explains. Weed beds weekly, too.

During the first year, no matter what type of strawberries
you choose to plant, the goal is to get your bed well
established. One way to help the plants settle in is to
remove all flowers for the first four to six weeks. Doing
this allows the plants to put their energy into developing
healthy leaf canopies, root systems and runners, and, as a
result, you can expect better yields in subsequent years.

If you are able to plant some of all three types, you will
have day-neutrals and ever-bearers producing berries the
first year after their first flush of flowers has been
removed. In subsequent seasons, you will harvest yields of
approximately 7 to 2 quarts of berries per season, per linear foot of row. Ever-bearers bear the least, June-bearers
bear the most intensely (all in about three weeks for a
given cultivar) and day-neutrals the most, but over a long
period of time.

Regular Renovation

If you want strawberry fields forever, you should renovate
your beds after each harvest period. As a bed ages, the
plants become too crowded, berries become smaller and
yields decline. To renovate the planting, use a shovel or
tiller to narrow the rows to 6 to 12 inches and then thin
the remaining plants to about 4 to 5 inches apart, removing
older and small, spindly plants whenever possible. Then,
remove the old leaves by mowing the bed with the blade set
high enough to avoid hitting the crowns.

June-bearers and ever-bearers managed this way should
produce good crops of large berries for at least five
years. Day-neutrals will need to he replaced about every
third year.

After renovation, give all your strawberry beds, no matter
what type, a good weeding and feed the remaining plants the
equivalent of 5 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 100 feet
of row. Renew mulch between plants and, where winters are
severe, cover plants with 3 to 4 inches of loose straw in
late fall. (Be sure to remove the straw in early spring.)

Diseases and Pests

Most diseases that affect strawberries can be kept under
control by buying resistant varieties and practicing
careful cultivation. When you pick, remove any spoiled
fruits.

The major pests usually are birds (cover your ripening
fruit with bird netting), and slugs or snails, which can be
controlled by eliminating weeds, setting out beer traps,
using a copper barrier strip around the bed’s perimeter or
releasing decollate snails (Rumina decollata), a
proven slug-and-snail predator sold in garden centers and
nurseries and available via mail-order.

A few insects can be a problem with strawberries. These
include the tarnished plant bug, a relative of the stink
bug; the little black sap beetle and the strawberry
clipper, but they usually are less troublesome on
strawberries than birds and slugs or snails.


Kris Wetherbee has tended strawberries for more than a
decade in her home garden in western Oregon.


Plant Sources

Nourse Farms, Inc. 41 River Road South
Deerfield, MA 01373 (413) 665-2658

Peaceful Valley Farm Supply PO. Box 2209
Grass Valley, CA 95945 (888) 784-1722

Raintree Nursery 391 Butts Road Morton, WA
98356 (360) 496-6400