How to Grow Strawberries

Strawberries are the sort of gateway fruit for vegetable gardeners. Fruit trees can be intimidating and temperamental if you don’t have the right soil conditions, berry canes and bushes also require a bit more care and maintenance. Strawberries are less fussy. You can plant them in ground or in containers, you can grow them in many different climates, and even minimal effort in maintenance will improve the yield dramatically.

How to grow strawberriesLet’s talk about growing strawberries.

Strawberry is a member of the Rosaceae (Rose) family and goes by the scientific name of Fragaria x ananassa. The letter "x" in its name indicates that strawberry is of hybrid origin and, in the case of strawberry, of two different species.

Botanically, the strawberry is not actually a fruit. It’s not even a berry. The fleshy part that we eat is the enlarged receptacle of the flower that holds the ovaries. So, from a botanical perspective a strawberry is not a true berry but rather an aggregate of achenes. The visible "seeds" that dot the surface of the strawberry are the achenes which is the ripened ovary that contains a single seed.

There are two good times to plant strawberries in the garden; in the spring, from bare-root plants or from rooted cuttings, and in the fall from plugs or rooted plants. Most gardeners start with bare-root plants in the spring but either method will get you started.

Planting Strawberries

Bare root strawberry plants are the least expensive way to have strawberries growing in your garden. You can buy a higher number of them for less money. These should be planted in the spring. Rooted cuttings or plugs are also a good way to get started in either spring or fall.

Step 1: Choose the Right Variety

Select a strawberry variety suitable for your climate and garden space. June-bearing, everbearing, and day-neutral are common types, each with its unique fruiting habits.

June-bearing strawberries usually only produce one vigorous crop of strawberries in spring to early summer. The plants usually produce little to no fruit in their first growing season. Because of this, this is the type of strawberry where we usually pinch back any flowers and runners, allowing the plant to put all its energy into healthy root development in the first season. So, by the second season, they will kick off with lots more new growth and you will have larger berries.

June-bearing strawberries form flower buds in late summer to early fall when day length is less than 10 hours per day. June-bearing strawberries are usually harvested during a two-three week period in late spring to early summer.

Because June-bearing strawberry plants bloom and fruit so early in the season, fruits can be damaged or killed by late spring frosts in cooler climates. Cold frames or row covers can help prevent frost damage. June-bearing plants are more heat tolerant than everbearing strawberries, so they tend to do better in climates with hot summers.

Everbearing strawberries bear fruit two to three times per year. You should see your first strawberries in the first year of planting. You will get two strawberry harvests—one in the late spring and one in the late summer or early fall. You may also get a third harvest in late fall.

Day-neutral strawberries flower throughout the summer months and into the fall, providing fruit well after June- bearing strawberries have stopped. The productivity and fruit quality of day-neutral strawberries are much better than the old “everbearing” types. Day neutral strawberries will produce a good yield in the first year they are planted if planted in spring and they will still be producing fruit in October during milder years. The drawback to day neutral strawberry plants is that they do produce smaller strawberries than the June bearing and everbearing strawberry varieties.

Step 2: Select the Proper Spot

Strawberries grow best in a deep, sandy loam soil, rich in organic matter. The soil must be well-drained; strawberries with constantly we roots are prone to root rot. Keep away from areas that remain wet late into the spring. Find a location with full sun exposure for at least 6-8 hours a day. Strawberries thrive in slightly acidic soil with a pH of 5.5-6.5.

Step 3: Prepare the Soil

Before planting, do a soil test and amend the soil with organic matter like compost, blood meal, and bone meal to add nutrients and improve drainage.  Alternatively, 2 lbs. of an organic 10-5-10 fertilizer per 100 sq ft of raised bed or 10 feet of row could be applied at pre-plant.

*DO NOT apply fertilizer directly below the plants, as the fertilizer may burn the young transplants.

Step 4: Planting

Dig a shallow hole wide enough to accommodate the roots without bending or crowding. Place the strawberry crown (where the roots meet the stem) just above the soil surface and spread out the roots. Firmly press the soil around the roots to eliminate air pockets. Do not bury the crown!

One system of planting is in hills 6-8 inches high and 24 inches wide. Strawberries can also be grown in rows with plants 12-18 inches apart and rows spaced 2-3 feet apart.  Strawberries also well when planted in a raised planter or containers, keeping the plants spaced 12-18 inches apart all around. Growing media made up of compost and coconut coir works especially well in containers.

Step 5: Watering and Mulching

After planting, water the strawberries thoroughly to settle the soil around the roots. Apply a layer of organic mulch, such as straw or shredded leaves, to conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and protect the fruits from soil contact. Keep the soil consistently moist, but not waterlogged, throughout the first season to encourage root establishment.

Caring for Strawberries in Fall

Step 1: Assess Plant Health

In the fall, evaluate the condition of your strawberry plants. Remove any diseased or damaged foliage to prevent the spread of pests and diseases.

Step 2: Fertilization

In late summer or early fall, apply a balanced fertilizer to provide essential nutrients for healthy growth and fruit development. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for proper application rates. If planting in fall, fertilize the soil just prior to planting (again, not directly underneath the plants).

Step 3: Mulching for Winter Protection

Once the plants have gone dormant, usually after the first frost, add a layer of mulch around the strawberry plants to insulate the soil and protect the crowns from freezing temperatures. This will help prevent winter injury and promote early spring growth. If you’re in a very cold area, this is absolutely necessary if your ground freezes solid and remains that way for a while. You want thick layers of mulch. In other areas, a very thin layer may be all that’s necessary and in warmer climates you likely won’t need any at all, say zones 7 and warmer.

For more information about how to harvest and store the berries, pests and diseases to watch for, and how to renovate the bed, check out this article: How to Maintain a Strawberry Bed .

Happy planting!

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