Growing Great Strawberries

by Harold Schrock | Mar 6, 2024 | 0 comments

Strawberries are a great crop for beginning fruit growers. Unlike growing trees and bushes, if you make a mistake with strawberries, you can quickly start over. Strawberries don’t require any specialized soil or fertility conditions. Any site that is well drained, in full sun, and amended for the production of general vegetables should be fine for strawberries.

I do recommend starting with raised beds when growing strawberries. The two greatest enemies of strawberry production are weeds and excessive rainfall. Raised beds help combat both of these problems and may also facilitate ease of harvest. Ideally, build your beds a season before planting the berries. This will allow you to clean up the weeds that germinate in the newly formed beds.

A good practice is to solarize raised beds the summer before planting. To solarize, first water the bed thoroughly and then cover with clear plastic, burying in the edges. Leave the plastic in place for about three weeks during a warm, sunny part of the year, normally late summer or early fall. If done properly, this will eliminate the weed seeds several inches deep. Of course, as you can imagine, solarization will eliminate almost all of the biological life in the same soil. Fortunately, beneficial bacteria and fungi will rapidly recolonize the sterile soil from the surrounding areas. Solarization can be beneficial in many other situations as well. If you have an extreme weed problem in an area of your garden, consider solarization. The process may also be very helpful before planting a crop of baby greens that is difficult to weed by cultivation.

Traditional June-bearing strawberries are planted in the early spring, except in the far South where they can be planted in the fall. More and more commercial growers are growing day-neutral or everbearing berries on plastic-covered beds. In this system, the plants are planted in the fall and only produce for one season. Plastic-culture berries are likely a little more labor-efficient, but are more costly otherwise. Traditional June-bearers in a matted row system can be renovated and maintained for a minimum of three to four years per planting. When establishing June-bearers, you will increase the life and production of the planting by trimming off all blossoms and not allowing production in the first year.

June-bearers are spaced 18 inches (.5 m) apart in rows 3-4 feet (1 m) apart. June-bearing matted rows will be about 2 feet (60 cm) wide. The spacing between the rows depends on how wide you want the paths to be between the rows. Everbearers are spaced 1 foot (30 cm) apart with two rows per bed.

One of the most important aspects of planting strawberries is getting the depth of planting right. Most strawberry suppliers provide an illustrated guide either in their catalog or with the shipment. Keep the plants well-watered for the first few weeks after planting.

The choice of type really comes down to whether you want to harvest berries over a three-to-four- week time period and be done, or harvest at a slower rate all summer long. Plastic-culture berries will require drip irrigation, and both types should be regularly fertilized to maintain yields. Use a balanced liquid fertilizer that includes micronutrients. Be careful to not over-apply boron; strawberries are easily damaged by too much boron. I like to foliar feed Sea Crop® sea mineral to make sure they have all needed trace elements. This can be very beneficial for flavor and shelf life of the ripe berries. You can also feed liquid fish fertilizer through foliar and drip, but avoid foliar feeding fish or other materials that are not food grade on ripe and nearly ripe berries.

Besides trimming off the blossoms, as I already mentioned, in the establishment year for June- bearers you will need to spend a little time placing the runners where they will best fill in the bed. You will need to remove some runners entirely. Maintain about a 70-80% leaf cover on a matted-row strawberry bed. If you look down from above and see only leaves, there are too many plants in the bed. Less than 50% leaf cover means you should root some more runners in the gaps. On everbearing beds, remove all runners as soon as they form, all season. Diligently removing runners before they grow significantly will save more energy for fruit production.

As soon as the harvest is over on June-bearing beds, they should be renovated. Mow the plants off about 1½ inches (4 cm) high, just high enough to avoid damaging the crowns. Dig out all weeds, and thin the strawberry plants to a spacing of at least 6 inches (15 cm) both ways. You can use the plants you remove to fill in extra wide gaps in the bed. Since this is done in midsummer, be sure to keep transplants well-watered until established. After cleaning up and thinning the bed, cover it with a thin layer of high quality compost. You can greatly increase the vigor and potential yield by fertilizing regularly between renovation and fall with a balanced mineral fertilizer. Avoid nitrogen in the last two months before frost. Too much nitrogen decreases cold hardiness.

After frost in the fall when plants have gone dormant, most strawberry growers cover the plants with a layer of straw. Although in most areas strawberry plants will survive the winter without protection, the straw serves two additional purposes. It helps with weed control; the straw, when raked aside in the spring, serves to mulch the access paths. Perhaps most importantly, the straw keeps the ground cooler in early spring and delays growth and blossoming. The delay in blossoming is helpful in many areas to prevent loss of blossoms to late frost. Do rake back the straw as soon as the first trees begin to open buds in the spring. Keeping the plants covered in warm weather is detrimental.

When growing everbearers on plastic, consider covering the beds with strong hoops and clear plastic in the early spring to speed up the first harvest. Pull up the edges on sunny days to avoid overheating. Running rope or strong twine across the plastic from side to side allows you to hold the plastic in place between rope and hoop. Leave the plastic covering the top of the beds for the whole season. After frost danger is past, pull it up on the hoops from both sides and tie in place to ventilate and facilitate picking. Keeping the bed covered above and protected from most of the rain has been demonstrated to significantly increase harvestable yield.

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