An incomparable sweet fragrance, fresh red color and superb flavor make strawberries just about everybody’s favorite berry. Strawberries are one of few fruits that originated in the United States. About 7 inches tall with roundish green leaves and white flowers, the plants are pretty enough for pots and planting dishes.
Many new varieties have been developed in the short time the strawberry has been in cultivation. Most require two years in the ground to produce fruit. Spring-planted ever bearers produce a heavy crop over a period of weeks with a scattering of berries the rest of the season. Standard varieties may ripen very early, early, midseason or late summer. Standard varieties produce all of their fruit at one time, making them an excellent candidate for canning, jellies, and jam. Buy only certified virus-free plants. Each plant should yield ½ to 1 quart of berries.
Where to Plant
Strawberry plants prefer a sunny location with good air circulation and some wind protection. Plant them in well-drained soil that is slightly acidic and full of rich humus. Be sure the area is cleared of any grass or weeds that will compete for nutrients and moisture. It’s best to put the plant in soil that has already been used for other cultivated crops for a year or more; this deters white grubs.
In southwest Michigan plant strawberry plants in very early spring, as soon as the soil becomes workable. The best harvests are obtained when planted in rows.
You may treat strawberry plants as biennials, planting one year, harvesting and plowing under the next. A second, less-used option is to treat them as the perennials they are, allowing them to continue producing year after year until the harvests wane.
Planting strawberry plants as biennials is best in areas where the winter cold is severe. For this planting method, leave 3 or 4 feet between rows and 18 inches between plants. Firm the soil around the roots and water the plants well. Allow the plant-producing runners to grow freely, but steer them so they grow toward their adjoining plant, take root, and fill in to make a row matted with strawberry plants. Harvest the following year, and then plow under. If plants are kept a third year, the new plants will overcrowd the bed. This will result in a small crop of small, hard berries.
To plant strawberry plants as perennials requires more attention, but where soil and exposure are ideal, the bed may stay productive for as long as 5 years. In less favorable circumstances, you’ll need to renew the planting more often. Put the plants 12 inches apart in 3 rows spaced 12 inches apart. Cut off all runners as soon as they form and allow no new plants to grow. This diverts the plants energy into producing large berries.
With either planting method, it’s important to set new plants in the ground at the exact level they grew in their pots. The crowns should be above the soil level and the topmost roots should be ¼ inch beneath the soil surface. Buried crowns will rot and exposed roots will dry out. Either issue will cause your plants to die.
After the plants are in the ground, mulch with a layer of straw or pine needles. This will insulate roots, keep berries clean, retain moisture and help keep soil temperature even. Pine needle mulch will discourage sow and pill bugs, which often cause trouble at fruiting time. Mulching will also help control weeds.
Feed strawberry plants when growth begins and again after the first crop is harvested. Consult your nursery expert for the best fertilizer to use in your region. The pH preference for strawberries is 5.0 – 7.5.
Strawberry plants need frequent deep soakings, especially during fruiting season. Plants grown in sandy soil should be watered every 2 to 3 days. Water plants in heavy soil every week to 10 days.
- Harvest strawberries the day they ripen as they spoil quickly. To keep them fresh longer, pick berries in the cool air of early morning and store them unwashed in the refrigerator. Clean them shortly before eating as wet berries spoil faster.
- Pinch the first year’s blossoms off to prevent plants from setting fruit and producing inferior berries later. Remove all blossom stems pinching them off at the base of the plant.
- Buy virus-free plants to deter most diseases. To repel certain insects some strawberry growers, plant a marigold between every plant. Others feather the fruiting stems among the strawberry leaves to prevent ground contact.
- Only use pesticides and herbicides approved for vegetable and fruit as directed on label. Misuse can be harmful to humans and animals as well as to your plants.
- Spring – Strawberries are heavy feeders. Apply fertilizer at planting time, as soon as the soil is workable. Cover plants under a bushel basket during late frosts.
- Summer – In the second year, harvest strawberries. Fertilize when crop is harvested. Allow ever bearers to set fruit after they are well established. Keep plants well-watered.
- Fall – When fruit harvest is completed, cut off old leaves, remove foliage lying on the ground and clip off spent fruit stems to deter insects and admit sunlight. Reduce watering as growth slows.
- Winter – When temperature threatens to dip below the low 20s, cover the bed with 6 inches of mulch. Add another foot of mulch when the ground freezes hard. If winter is dry, water.