Strawberries are among the quickest and easiest fruits you can grow. And while homegrown strawberries may be smaller than store-bought ones, their fragrance and flavor should more than compensate for the difference.
Read on to learn about your options for growing strawberries at home.
Know Your Berries: June-bearing, Everbearing, and Dayneutral
There are three basic types of strawberries, as well as many specific cultivars of each type.
June-bearing strawberries fruit once a year in late spring or early summer. Here in northern NY they really do fruit in June; they fruit in May in North Carolina.
Everbearing strawberries fruit twice a year, in late spring/early summer and again in late summer/early fall.
Day-neutral strawberries are a new improved version of everbearers. They produce fruit throughout the cooler parts of the growing season. They still don’t produce much during the hottest periods.
June-bearing strawberries produce runners and new plants during the summer and fall. Everbearers and day neutrals don’t produce as many new runners.
This means that it’s easier to keep a June-bearing patch going year after year. Everbearers and day neutrals tend to have to be replaced with newly purchased plants every two years.
Southern growers should stick to growing Junebearers, as ever-bearers and day-neutral strawberries don’t do well in warmer climates. As you move further north, such as in Maryland gardeners can enjoy both day-neutral as well as some June bearers varieties
Growing Strawberry Plants in the Garden
Strawberries grow best in well-drained soil; sandy loam is best. If your land is wet, build a raised bed so your strawberries won’t develop root rot from soggy soil.
In cold climates, such as Maine the experts recommend planting strawberries on a gentle slope which allows cold air to drain away. This reduces the chance of frost injury.
Strawberries prefer full sun. At least 6 hours of sun each day is recommended for the best results.
Avoid planting strawberries in the soil where tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, or potatoes have been grown in the last four years. Those plants, like strawberries, can carry and suffer from the fungal disease verticillium wilt.
Strawberries thrive in fertile soil amended with plenty of organic matter. I added large amounts of compost to the beds where I was preparing to plant strawberries. The Maine Extension also suggests adding rock sulfate, an organic source of phosphorus. I added bone meal to my beds.
If you start your strawberries in relatively weed-free soil you’ll find it easier to care for them in later years. Strawberries are hard to weed once established due to their many runners and their shallow roots. I planted mine into a place where I’d just removed the sod, and weeding remains difficult, though the plants still produce well.
Spacing depends on the type of strawberries you’re planting and the management system you prefer. You can plant Junebearers 1 foot apart and then remove all runners as they grow so the plants will focus on producing flowers and fruit. This provides the highest yields but requires you to buy more plants and buy them more frequently.
The matted-row system for Junebearers, which I use, requires the purchase of fewer plants. Set plants 18-24 inches apart in rows spaced 4 feet apart. Let them produce runners freely.
Space day neutrals and ever bearers 1 foot apart in rows 1 foot apart, 2 or 3 rows to a bed.
When and How to Plant Strawberries
Plant strawberries out as soon as the ground is snow-free, thawed, and dry enough for planting. Strawberry plants are hardy perennials and frost won’t harm their leaves, though it can nip their blossoms.
Strawberries are generally purchased as root crowns. Take care not to let these dry out as you plant. I put my crowns into a bucket of water with silica gel and took them out one by one to plant. You can also soak them in water for an hour before planting.
Set your strawberry plants in holes large enough so you can spread their roots out. Gently pack soil over the roots and bring it halfway up the crowns. I water the planting holes, set the crowns in, and then water again.
Maintaining Your Strawberry Plants
All types of strawberries benefit from regular watering, one to two inches a week. I water my Junebearers heavily before and during fruiting, less often afterward.
You’ll need to remove the first flowers your strawberry plants produce. June-bearing strawberries need one year of vegetative growth without fruiting to establish themselves.
Pinch off all flowers during the planting year. Everbearers and day neutrals grow on a tighter schedule. Pinch off flowers for the first six weeks, and then let them bloom and bear fruit.
Spreading mulch between plants will help to keep the soil moist as well as keeping fruit up off the dirt. Straw is the most traditional mulch, as the berries’ name suggests, but other non-matting mulches can be used. I mulch with pine needles. Wood shavings can also work well.
A deeper mulching will help protect your strawberry plants through the winter in cold climates. It’s important to let plants start acclimatizing to winter before mulching them.
You can start mulching plants as early as November, depending on your location.
Apply 3-5 inches of some kind of mulch that doesn’t mat the way leaves do. The North Carolina Extension suggests applying a light layer of straw mulch in December after the ground has frozen. Remove the mulch in spring when ¼ of plants are showing yellow or white new growth.
In northern New York, I put several inches of pine needles over my strawberries in late fall after the nights get down to 20 degrees, and I rake most of it off sometime in April.
You can put row cover over plants after removing winter mulch. This allows light to reach the plants but offers some frost protection for the tender blossoms.
Summer mulching can encourage everbearing and day-neutral strawberries to bear more fruit in warm weather. A 3-inch layer of straw between plants is enough to cool the soil.
Don’t fertilize June-bearing plants in the spring before they bear fruit. This can lead to softer fruit and more disease problems. Fertilize Junebearers as part of renovation (see below).
Everbearing and day-neutral strawberries will benefit from more frequent fertilizing. One Extension article suggests fertilizing with nitrogen and potassium at the beginning of every month from May through August.
June-bearing plants will remain productive for several years if you renovate them soon after harvest time ends. Clip or mow the plants down to 1-3 inches from the ground. Weed thoroughly, and then, if you’re using the matted-row system, narrow your strip of strawberries to 8-12 inches.
I grow my strawberries in 3-foot-wide beds, and I save my strip in a different section of the bed each year. Thin plants so they’re at least 6 inches apart within the row.
Add fertilizer and then cover the plants with soil. One Extension article recommends 10-10-10 and a 1-1.5” layer of garden soil. I use bone meal followed by an inch or so of compost.
Common Problems With Strawberries
You may face stiff competition from birds, chipmunks, and others eager to eat your berries. I’ve kept birds out with netting, but chipmunks tunnel in any way. I’ve destroyed a few chipmunks with bucket traps. Those are 5-gallon pails half full of water, with a board or stick leaned against them from the outside for an on-ramp. Chipmunks climb up, fall in and drown.
Insects also may attack your strawberry plants. Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver describes some of the worst culprits.
- Dry yellow spots on leaves may be a sign of mites sucking plant juices; you can spray them with organic insecticidal soap.
- Tarnished plant bugs cause shrunken, sunken, or catfaced spots on strawberries.
- Stunted plants with holes chewed in their blossoms may be suffering weevil damage.
- Organic pyrethrum spray will deal with both of these pests; spray at dusk so as not to affect pollinators.
Strawberries are also susceptible to diseases including verticillium wilt, red stele, powdery mildew, gray mold, bortrytis rot, and more.
Some strawberry cultivars are resistant to some or all of these diseases. Plants that are widely spaced and set in well-drained soil are more disease-resistant. For a closer look at some disease symptoms and treatments, see the Colorado Extension article on strawberry diseases.
With a little care in site preparation, planting, and off-season maintenance, you can enjoy repeated harvests of fresh sweet strawberries.
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