Getting Started with June-bearing Strawberries
Like asparagus and rhubarb, June-bearing strawberries are a perennial crop started from bare-root plants planted in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. Beginning in its second year after planting, a well-tended strawberry bed will produce a good crop of berries for three to five years before the plants begin to decline, at which point the bed should be replanted. A bed of 100 plants will provide about 100 quarts of berries, enough to provide a family of four with plenty of fresh berries as well as surplus for freezing.
Growing strawberries will test a gardener’s patience. If you are just getting started, be prepared to spend the coming season selecting the perfect site, having the soil tested, and adequately preparing the soil for planting in spring of 2013.
Types of strawberries
The following advice is specific to June-bearing strawberries, the only type that grow in Marjorie’s garden. They bear all of their fruit in June on plants that develop long runners, some of which we allow to grow into new plants.
There are two other types of strawberry. Ever-bearing varieties produce fruit from late spring until early fall. The harvest at any one point is relatively small, compared to June-bearing varieties, but the gardener will be able to harvest berries toward the end of the first season. Ever-bearing plants stay fairly small and do not produce vigorous runners.
Day-neutral varieties produce fairly decent crops of berries in both spring and fall. The plants stay small and produce vigorously in cool weather, but do not do well in hot summers. Like the ever-bearing varieties, day-neutral strawberries will produce fruit in the fall of their first year.
Strawberry experts tell us that the newest day-neutral varieties are far superior to ever-bearing varieties in terms of overall productivity and fruit quality. For best results, day-neutral strawberries should be grown as an annual crop, replanted each year.
Strawberries prefer a deep sandy loam that is rich in organic matter, well drained, and weed-free. The site should receive at least six hours of direct sun every day and it should have a gradual slope that allows cold air to drain away from the plants on those frosty spring mornings after growth has begun. Also, strawberries must be irrigated during the growing season and so the chosen site should be near a source of water.
Avoid planting strawberries in areas where solanaceous crops, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes, have been grown in the past four years. The soil-borne fungus that causes root rot in these crops, Verticillium, will turn its attention to the roots of strawberries. Also, do not plant strawberries where grass sod was recently turned under. White grubs (beetle larvae) that once fed on the grass roots will devour the strawberry roots.
After selecting the site, have the soil tested. Strawberries grow best at a pH of 5.8 to 6.2 and you should follow the soil test recommendations to ensure that your soil pH is in this range. Also, if the test indicates that soil organic matter is low, you should make repeated applications of decomposed barnyard manure or compost for a full season before planting.
In spring of the planting year, apply the following nutrient amendments to each 1000 square feet of bed: 8 bushels (10 cubic feet) of decayed manure, 1 pound of nitrogen (as cottonseed meal, fish meal, or soybean meal), 1 pound of phosphate (as rock phosphate), and 1 pound of iron chelate.
Planting Bare-root Strawberries
Plant bare-root strawberries in late April or early May, as soon as the the soil can be worked. Late February or early March is the time to order bareroot plants from suppliers.
In the traditional matted row system, strawberry plants are spaced two feet apart with four feet between rows. If you prefer to garden in raised beds, you can plant a single row of transplants down the center of each three-foot-wide bed with a narrow walkway between beds.
Do your planting in the late afternoon to minimize transplant stress. Using a trowel or your hand, make each planting hole deep enough to position the roots straight down with the midpoint of the crown (the area between leaves and roots) at the soil surface after planting. Within the first week, after a thorough watering, the soil will settle to a line even with the bottom of the crown. Remove all flower buds, runners, and damaged leaves from a plant, set it in its hole, spread out the roots, and backfill with soil. After all plants are in the ground, give the entire bed a thorough but gentle watering.
Throughout May of the first year, pinch off any blooms that appear on your new strawberry plants, allowing the plants to divert all of their energy to development of strong healthy plants. Removal of flowers is far more painful for the gardener than for the plants, and necessary to ensure bumper crops in the seasons to follow.
This first year without fruit, coupled with the initial year of bed preparation, may seem like an eternity, but remember, you are preparing a home for plants that will reward you with delicious fruits every spring for several years.
Next week: “The Cultivation of Strawberries Through the Year”, including advice on mulching, fertilizing, annual renewal, and replanting, as well as recommended varieties.