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PHOTO: Karen Lanier
The agricultural juggernaut in California has produced increasingly more millions of strawberries every year for the past 40 years, creating consumer demand for this delectable fruit. American consumers are now accustomed to consuming more fresh strawberries than ever, and lucky you, you can grow them right outside your doorstep!
Types of Strawberries
There are three main types of strawberries (June bearing, day neutral and ever bearing) and hundreds of varieties of each of the types. June-bearing strawberries (also called short-day strawberries) are the most commonly used varieties for commercial growers. These plants are generally planted in the fall and then produce their best crop of fruit the following year. Day-neutral types are usually planted in the spring and produce fruit the first year. Ever-bearing varieties are planted at various times and produces two smaller crops, one in late-June and the second in late-August.
Many new strawberry varieties are introduced every season. Strawberries hybridize easily, and farmers have been busy for the last century breeding tolerance to various natural elements—earliness or lateness, color, flavor retention and storage capacity.
Camarosa, a June-bearing strawberry has been the overwhelmingly favorite California commercial variety and is replanted every year as an annual crop. U-Pick operations across the United States, Canada and Europe tend to grow June-bearing strawberries, too, but they keep the garden beds going and get two or three years of production from each planting.
Because seed catalogs, with all their luscious illustrations of tempting red fruits, usually come from some other states, their advice concerning strawberry types and varieties can be confusing. Your best bet is to talk to your neighbors and your local cooperative-extension agent, nod politely, experiment a little, and then make up your own mind. What works for the fellow on the other side of the hill might not work as well on your farm.
How to Grow Strawberries
The cultural key to growing strawberries begins with good soil drainage. Traditionally, strawberries are grown on a raised mound to ensure this drainage. Even the precise placement of the new strawberry plants requires attention to depth because a plant buried too deeply will suffocate and rot, whereas placing it too shallow will leave the crown of the plant exposed. Garden books are fond of showing three Goldilocks-style planting diagrams: one with the new plant planted too deeply, one that’s too shallow and one that’s just right. Some are now adding a fourth illustration, showing the roots going sideways, which is another mistake.
When they are setting fruit, strawberries thrive on cool nights and cool, sunny days. Plants grown in coastal and northern locations produce their crops in the summer, whereas in warmer areas, like Florida, they can be grown throughout the year. The strawberry plants themselves can live and produce fruit for many years. At the intense California agribusiness farms, strawberries are grown as annuals that are planted in the fall for harvest the following spring, but almost everywhere else the plants are grown for several years. According to the Ohio State University Extension, avoid allowing plants to set fruit in the first year, as your plants will be able to produce more fruits if allowed to grow to a larger size before fruiting.
A strawberry farmer usually looks at all the strawberry beds after the harvest season and decides which beds to replant and which beds to leave for another year. Situations change from year to year, and so do the decisions about replanting. Particularly healthy and productive beds will likely be left for another year, whereas beds that experienced problems during the season are likely to be replanted. Strawberry beds can grow for 10 years in the most favorable conditions, but the fruit crop yield always seems to decline from year to year. Additionally, some pests and diseases become more problematic in older beds.
During the cold months, strawberry beds that are left intact benefit from being mulched despite whether they receive snow. The mulch provides insulation from the cold, but should not be applied until after a hard frost. Straw is a common and inexpensive mulch material, but any clean, dry organic material can be used. In the spring, leave one-third of the winter-cover mulch in place, and allow the plants grow up through it. The remaining mulch will provide many benefits, including nutrition, hygiene, weed control and most importantly, preventing fruit’s contact with the soil.
Strawberry Pests and Diseases
Strawberry plants and fruits are susceptible to several different fungal diseases, and this is the leading danger to your plants. Once a fungus infection has started, you probably won’t be able to stop it. Plants and fruit become infected through soil contact, so it’s wise to spend time arranging plants so neither the leaves nor the fruit come in contact with the ground. Repeated mass doses of fungicides might slow the progress of the disease but won’t wipe it away completely. Growers who choose to use fungicides use them almost exclusively as preventative treatments before the fungus has a chance to start growing.
Whiteflies and spider mites top the list of insect pests that can infect your strawberry patch. When conditions are right, these pests can multiply from a few individuals to a dangerous infestation within a few weeks. While preventative soap and essential-oil sprays can discourage unwanted visitors, attracting beneficial bugs, such as predatory mites for combating whiteflies and spider mites, will promote better ecological harmony within your garden.
Strawberry rows are often covered with a plastic film to keep weeds from growing, and this technique also prevents the ripening fruit from contacting the soil. The raised mounds are slightly easier to work on and harvest from, as well.
If you have a problem with birds and deer wanting to nibble on your strawberries, then consider adding fencing, netting and a scarecrow to the patch.
Amusingly, the list of strawberry-plant pests must include itself. Plants in a new bed will produce a number of runners in the spring, and while these are wonderful for filling in the bed and multiplying the investment in plantlets, you must take care to thin these runners or they can create an overcrowded bed. Keep two to three inches between plants after the runners are out. Having too many plants can starve the bed and can restrict pollination and fruit size.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.