Strawberries are one of the most popular of small and tender fruit for backyard fruit growing and with a bit of care you can harvest a considerable amount in a small space.
You can grow a strawberry in almost any soil but the preferred soil (from the strawberrry’s point of view) is a well-drained sandy loam soil. In other words,don’t plant in a wet or heavy clay soil and add as much organic matter as you can every year.
Hint: If you do have a heavy or poorly drained soil, ridge up the garden (make ridges above the surrounding soil) and plant the mother plants on top of the ridges. This will allow the roots to drain and get standing water away from the plant crowns (the spot at the soil line where all the leaves emerge from).
Bottom line: use what you have because this plant is adaptable but add as much organic matter to the soil every year as you possibly can.
If you have compost, you can’t add too much to the garden. Otherwise you’re going to have to supplement this shallow rooted crop with an organic plant food such as fish emulsion.
Note: Shallow rooted plants such as strawberries will “run out” of nitrogen in late spring or early summer if none is applied. Nitrogen is water-soluble and will tend to move downwards in the soil in spring and early summer rains. It can easily pass beyond the reach of the shallow roots of strawberries and your plants will slow down in either growth or yield or both.
Plant as early in the spring as you can get onto the garden. This is a hardy perennial plant and isn’t going to be bothered in it’s first year by late frosts. Besides if you want a harvest this first year, you had better get those plants into the ground early enough to develop a good harvest.
Hint: sometimes you get plants in plastic bags by mail-order. These can be kept in the crisper of the frig for a week until you’re ready to plant. Do NOT water them if they’re in plastic. While the roots may appear to be dry, they are just fine (they’re dormant) and watering in a plastic bag can lead to rot.
Fall planting is sometimes recommended but this has never worked for me in a USDA zone 4. Either the plant has died or the yield was so low it wasn’t worth the hassle. I note the old-time nursery books pretty much all same the same thing (you can fall-plant but yields will be low) but this is passed over by some newer garden writing.
Two Kinds of Planting Systems
There are two kinds of planting systems – the “Hill” system and the “Matted Row” system.
- Hill system – plants are put on 12-inch centers in a row and all runners are removed. The rows are 12-18 inches apart.
- Matted Row – plants are set in on 24-inch centers and runners are allowed to fill in between the rows. Rows are 3-4 feet apart.
Hint: If you are using an everbearing variety, use the hill system of growing as they do tend to be poor at producing runners.
Putting the plants in the ground
Using your favorite garden tool, dig a hole deep enough so the roots of individual plants can be put straight-down without bending.
The mid-point of the crown (again where all the leaves come from the swelling on the top of the plant) should be put at the soil line.
Press all roots firmly (I stand next to them) into the soil and then water thoroughly.
Care of Plants
It is really important to care for young plants properly.
The first thing is to keep them weed-free. You can do this with a hoe or you can do it with a thick mulch. Either is fine depending on your style of gardening. Me? I like thick mulches on all my gardens.
Keep soil evenly moist – do not allow this bed to dry out completely (as in drought).
Important – remove all blossoms the first year of growing. You’ll want to do this in order to get those first plants well established with good root systems.
Matted Row: keep the rows as wide as you can reach into the middle. You have to be able to reach ripe berries easily so likely no more than 3-feet of row width. You’re going to see a ton of runners developing so the trick is to remove enough so each has it’s own space (approximately 6-inches apart).
Hill System – pinch off runners and keep well weeded.
Overcrowding invites fungus disease so do pinch off the smaller plants/runners so they don’t get in the way of the larger ones.
With the larger ones you’re leaving, put a handfull of soil right behind the baby-plants and cover the runner (but not the baby plant at all). This will help the baby set down roots.
I add this section because there is an easy way to protect tender strawberry plants in tough, cold climates by mulching with straw. A bale of straw will cover approximately 30-35 feet of row and if you put this on in late fall (covering the entire plant) just before snow, the young plants will be protected from frosts.
Remove this mulch from over top of the plants *as soon as you see new growth* of any kind on the plants (in USDA zone 4, this is usually around the middle to end of April). Lay the mulch between the rows in a Hill system. or remove it totally if you’re growing in a Matted Bed system.
Early Spring Protection
Moving through the season, we start with late frosts that will kill off the newly emerging blossoms. If you want a harvest, you’re going to have to protect your plants.
Row covers – the fabric row covers will protect young plants through several degrees of frost by trapping ground heat. Lay this over the crop and make sure the edges are well weighted down so no breeze can get underneath (and no high wind can make your row cover into a kite).
Mulch. Old-time growers would put down 3 inches of mulch over the plants to protect the kind and queen blossoms (the two biggest blossoms producing the two biggest fruit on each plant)
Modern growers tend to put on the irrigation system overnight and keep the plants well watered. This usually stops frost cold but even if the plants are frozen solid in the morning, you’re going to find many of the blossoms will be fine (the physics of water actually releasing heat to transform itself into ice)
How Much Can You Expect to Get
A yield of 25 quarts per 25 feet of row is considered a good harvest.
Summer Time Care
Once you get that strawberry plant going strong, you can get a harvest from the mother plant for 4-5 years with no reduction in yield. (this is why you need a good first year and don’t allow fruiting)
But if you want to get that 25 quarts, you have to do a few things.
Immediately after harvest, feed the plants. Use fish emulsion or one of the balanced organic fertilizers at recommended rates to boost the plants.
Mow off the tops of the plants. Mow low enough to cut off the foliage but high enough so you don’t hit plant crowns.
If you are going to keep the same plants for several years…
Remove any runners that are being produced. With both systems, you’re going to be removing runners all season long unless you need to fill in a spot here or there and then you’ll allow a runner to colonize that section. But new runners are removed or they’ll make the row too crowded.
If you want to replace some plants after a few years
In the row system, allow new runners to root to one side of the old row. Not both side but one side. If you have multiple rows, all new runners go in the same direction to fill in the former row walking-spaces. In the fall, rototill out the old mother plants leaving only the new runners. The rows have now moved 12-18 inches sideways in the garden.
In the matted row system, all runners to colonize on the outer edges of the matted bed and space as per the original directions. In the fall, till out the center old bed leaving yourself with two narrow beds.
Handling Everbearing Plants.
An everbearing plant continues to produce blooms/fruit for much of the summer compared to normal plantings that give you the entire harvest in mid to early summer.
The major difference with everbearing plants is in their first year. Remove all flowers until July (the plants should be well established by then) and then allow the flowers to remain and you’ll be able to take a few berries in the fall.
The only problem with everbearing plants is they tend to try to produce a ton of berries and they wind up producing a lot of berries but they’re small. So you can remove some of the flowers on an ongoing basis or you can simply accept small berries.
Otherwise treat as a normal berry.
There are several major pests of strawberries – birds and slugs.
Birds – we control these with netting, whether you use row-cover fabric (frost fabric) or a regular bird netting, this is how it’s done. You can hang old cd’s in trees (bright and shiny twirling around) and other deterrents but the real answer is netting.
Slugs. These are major pests if you use a mulch. They love the dark, cool conditions provided by the mulch. I use iron-types of slug bait (organic, non-poisonous) around the crowns to stop slugs cold. I find these organic controls work much better than the old poisons (still sold). Look for iron-phosphate, iron-sulphate – any kind of “iron” in the active ingredient label and nothing else. Iron is a natural substance in soils and slugs have a low ability to process it so it kills them.
Compost Reduces Strawberry Verticillium Wilt
Researchers at the Universite Laval, Quebec, Canada (T.J. Avis, B. Mimee, H. Antoun, and R.J. Tweddell) compared adding a compost (made from cattle manure, marine residues – unspecified, or tree bark) were added to the soil in strawberry plots.
The trial compared this treatment to chemical soil fumigation using metham sodium (Vapam®).
Bottom line – the wilt decreased significantly in the organic compost area but not the soil fumigated area.
Here’s a source of strawberry plants for the home garden