Planting and Care of Strawberry Plants

Strawberries, a member of the rose family, are a fruit that most home gardeners can grow. Though they can be grown from Alaska to the tip of Florida, different areas of the country require different methods of growing strawberries. In moderate areas, Zones 4 to 7, strawberries can be grown as perennial plants and you will get several years of strawberries from one planting. In very cold areas, in the far South and on the southern west coast, strawberries are best grown as annual plants. Knowing what special care your strawberry patch requires for your zone will bring you years of strawberry harvests to come.

How Many? How Much?

If you want the strawberries for fresh use and just a little to freeze or share, 25 plants should be plenty for a small family. If you want lots of berries to make jam or freeze, you may want to start with 50 plants. You will be placing the plants about a foot apart, so for 25 plants you will need rows about 2 feet wide and 25 feet long, or two rows 12 feet by 2 feet.

Making the Bed

Preparation of the beds is the same for most areas of the country. While you can grow strawberries in fancy strawberry barrels and pyramidal beds, strawberries are best grown right in the garden if you have the room. You'll get more berries and have fewer problems when grown in raised rows in the garden.

Choose an area in full sun, where no strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants or potatoes have grown for the last four years. All of these plants share the same soil-borne diseases and insect problems. Don't choose a wet area or a low spot that will collect cold and frost. You will need a spot close to water so you can irrigate if it gets dry.

Strawberries like sandy, well-drained soil. They will grow in other soils but the soil must drain well. Wet areas cause the roots of strawberries to rot. Work the soil up well, making sure you have removed all sod pieces. Working up the soil in the fall and again before planting is helpful.

An alternative method to tilling up soil would be to build a raised bed with timbers about a foot high. Cut any sod as close as possible inside the bed, then lay numerous thick layers of newspaper down on the bottom. Fill with loose, humus-rich soil. This method also works great where the garden soil is heavy clay or drains poorly.

Before planting, work some fertilizer into the bed, following label directions for the amount to use. You can use a fertilizer designed for strawberries or a slow-release 10-10-10 garden fertilizer.

Choosing Varieties

Strawberries are listed in catalogs as June-bearing, everbearing or short-day varieties. June or spring bearers have the heaviest crops and are the varieties the gardeners in Zones 4 to 7 can get to remain as perennials for several years. Everbearers bear small crops sporadically throughout the year and are also grown by gardeners in Zones 4 to 7, but they are best treated as annuals and replanted each year.

In very cold areas, June bearers are also used, although they are treated as annuals and must be replanted each year.

Some good June bearers for the North are Earliglow, Sparkle, Redchief and Allstar. For the South, you could use Sweet Charlie, Camarosa, Chandler or Delmarva. Good varieties for the west coast and desert areas are Seascape, Tribute, Tristar, Selva, Fern and also Chandler. Some good everbearing varieties are Ozark Beauty, Quinault, Gem and also Tribute and Tristar, which are day-neutral.

Short-day varieties and day-neutral varieties are grown in warm areas such as Florida, southern Texas, desert areas and the west coast. They are generally planted in the fall, around September, and will have fruit from December to February, depending on variety and the weather. They are replanted each year.

Planting Strawberries

You will either get your strawberries as dormant, bare-root plants or as potted plants. Keep the dormant plants in a cool, moist place until ready to plant. Don't allow the roots to dry out, but don't leave them soaking in water. Buy only certified disease-free plants.

Place your plants about a foot apart in the row. It is very important to plant the strawberries at just the right depth. The soil level should cover the roots and be just at the base of the crown, the spot where all the new leaves sprout from in the center of the plant. You need to water well after planting.

In the North you will plant in the spring, just before your last frost is expected. Light frost will not hurt the leaves. In the South and West you will be planting in the fall, from September to November, depending on the weather.

Mulches and Row Covers

Mulching strawberries is highly recommended, as dealing with weeds is one of the hardest parts of growing them. Plastic mulch is good for cold areas as it helps warm the soil. Red plastic mulch is sold now and it is said to increase the yield and size of strawberries. When you use plastic mulch, lay it down on the soil first, then cut holes in it to plant.

Straw, wood chips, shredded leaves or other organic mulches can also be used around plants and in the rows to keep down weeds.

Row covers are strongly recommended as they can help your strawberries in many ways. Row covers are made of a thin layer of spun material that is similar to a fabric softener sheet. They allow sunlight and moisture to get through but protect from frost and insects.

Put your row covers on when planting in cool areas to give the plants a head start. They must be removed when the plants start blooming so insects can pollinate the blossoms. If frost threatens when the plants are blooming, the covers can be put back on to protect them, but be sure to remove them in the morning.

Basic Maintenance

The work is hardest for those located in the North who want to establish a perennial patch of strawberries using June-bearing varieties. You must take all the flowers off the first year. Heartbreaking, isn't it? The plants will develop strong roots and will put out runners to fill up your rows. Keep the rows about 2 feet apart and thin plants so they are about 6 inches apart in the rows.

Once the temperatures go below 20 degrees, you will need to cover your plants with several inches of straw. You will remove the mulch in early spring, when plants start growing.

In the second year you can pick all the berries you want. After the berries have finished, you will mow or clip all the leaves off to just above the crown and fertilize with a slow-release fertilizer. You need to water well after trimming. The plants will regrow and put out runners that you can allow to fill in any bare areas. This will need to be repeated each year for 4 to 5 years before you will rip it all out and start over.

For those of you who are treating the strawberries as annual plants, the chores are much simpler. Just allow the plants to grow and bear fruit, and then rip them out. Everbearers will be ripped out after frost kills them. Try to rotate the area where you plant your strawberries each year.

All strawberry patches need to be mulched to keep out weeds or weeded often. For good berry production, the plants must have adequate moisture and must be watered when it is dry. If you develop disease problems in yourr strawberry patch, it is best to rip out the bed and start again in a new area.

Harvesting Fruit

Keep ripe berries picked often. This keeps the plant producing longer. Strawberries do not ripen after they are picked, so pick the red ones. Store the berries in the refrigerator, and don't wash them until you just about to use them.

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