Have you ever thought about growing strawberries? Strawberries are the most common home grown berries. They are easy to grow and care for, they don't take up much space and are highly productive.
Raising strawberries is a spring tradition at our house. Looking for that first bloom, then the first ripe berry, becomes a race to see who gets to eat the first one of the year.
Usually the birds find the first few...but strawberries are so prolific, that the birds can get some, and there will still be plenty for people too.
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When growing strawberries, most of the work comes up front in preparing the bed that you will plant them in.
There are many different opinions about the best shape or form to plant strawberries in. Some folks like them in narrow rows like an annual vegetable. Any way you plant them, the more effort you put into the bed up front, the more successful your harvests will be later.
Strawberries do best in well drained sandy or loamy soil in a sunny location. Don't expect much fruit if you plant them in a shady location. Depending on where you live, late frosts can destroy all of the blooms so a south facing slope is ideal, but work with what you have. Take the time to select your site. If you already have a successful vegetable garden, then you already have a prime strawberry growing spot.
I prefer growing strawberries in a wide bed (some people call this a matted bed).
For a small garden, this seems to be the easiest way to care for & maintain the plants over the long term. It also seems to produce the most berries in the smallest area for a small grower. My strawberry bed is actually a wide row on one end of my garden. It is about 36' wide, and plants cover the entire area.
Preparing a bed like this involves tilling and hilling. Till the area you want to make your strawberry bed as deep as you can (about 12 inches deep is good). If you have access to compost, till in a good amount. Hill the soil up about 6-8 inches higher than the surrounding garden.
Planting strawberries is best done in the spring, but as long as you keep your new plants well watered, summer or fall will work as well. Strawberry plants can be purchased from mail order nurseries, online, or from local garden centers, nurseries, and big box stores in the spring. If you know someone who is already growing strawberries, you can usually talk them out of some starts.
Strawberry plants propagate by runners that grow from the base of a parent plant. These runners can extend out up to 2 feet from the mother plant, and will start a new plant when they touch the ground. If you don't control these runners after your plants are established, they can take over your entire garden. That's why people who already have strawberries are usually so generous with giving away starts. That is also how planting a few evenly spaced plants can turn into a thick mat of strawberries in a very short time.
When you get your new plants it's likely that the roots will be dried out. Soak the plants in a bucket of water for an hour or two before planting to start refreshing them and get them off to as good start as possible.
The base of the plant between the leaves and the roots is called the crown. The crown of the plant should be planted so that it is about half in an half out of the soil. If you plant them too deep, they may not survive.
Plant your new strawberry plants 8-10 inches apart evenly spaced across the entire prepared bed and water each plant in as you go. You could even use some water soluble fertilizer on them to get them off to a quicker start.
Keep your new plants watered until they are well established. Keep weeds pulled to eliminate competition with your young plants.
It's likely that your strawberries may bloom a bit the first year you plant them. It's best to remove these blooms so that they can devote all of their energy to getting established and growing.
Bumblebees and Orchard Mason bees are the most common pollinators of strawberries. Honey bees aren't fully active by the time strawberries begin to bloom, but they do contribute to pollination as well.
In the second year and every year after that, your strawberries will start to grow before the last frost, and will start to bloom soon after the last average frost. Here in Southern Indiana where I live, our strawberries start getting ripe in late May or early June. If you live further south, expect berries sooner, further north you'll be picking later.
When you find your first red strawberry, your inclination will be to pick it as soon as you see any color at all (I know - I've been there!). If there is any white on the berries leave them alone for one more day. The difference will be dramatic both in appearance and sweetness. You may lose a few berries to birds, but if you have a good sized patch, very soon there will be more berries than the birds can eat.
Generally, strawberry harvest will last about 3-4 weeks. The peak of the harvest will be in the middle two weeks. Pick strawberries every day during this time so none go to waste. My strawberry patch is about 36" wide and just short of 30 feet long, and we picked between 5 and 7 gallons of berries this past year over the entire harvest.
The big question at some point will be - "What am I going to do with all of these strawberries!!" Besides eating as many fresh berries as we can, we also give them away to family, freeze them for use during the winter, make strawberry jelly and preserves and make wine I haven't tried it, but I'm sure that you could even make strawberry juice for the kids to drink by following my directions for making grape juice
Strawberry care does require some basic maintenance to prepare them for harsh winter weather - Particularly if you live far enough north that your ground will freeze.
In the mid to late fall (basically when the ground is dry enough to allow you to), cut the strawberry plants down. The easiest way to do this is with a push type lawn mower. Set the wheels on their highest setting and just mow the tops off.
It's OK to walk on the plants when you do this, because they're getting ready to go dormant for the winter. If you use a mulching mower, that's even better, because it allows you to put the clippings right back on top of the plants.
After the first hard freeze of the winter, it's time to mulch your strawberry patch. I define hard freeze as overnight temperatures dropping below 28°F. As you might have guessed - they call them STRAWberries for a reason. The traditional mulch is straw. This is what I use, and have had good success.
Some folks use leaves, or dry grass clippings as a mulch. Whatever you use, make sure it's something light and "fluffy". Don't use bark mulch or manure as it's too heavy. What you're looking to do is create an air pocket just above the soil to help protect the plants from the worst of the cold. I wouldn't recommend hay either, because it usually contains lots of weed seeds that can foul your strawberry patch the next year.
The straw will gradually flatten out and decompose over the winter, and unless you put on way too much, you shouldn't need to remove it in the spring. The decomposed straw will provide some nutrients for your growing strawberries. The plants will grow right through the straw, and leaving it will also help control weeds during the summer.
Once your strawberry patch is well established, you 'll find that the plants create a thick intertwined mat that gets thicker and thicker every year. This mat can get so thick that eventually it will prevent your plants from bearing a good crop. To avoid this, you'll have to do some renovation work to every third or fourth year, to keep the crop going strong.
If you grow your strawberries in single (narrow) rows, this means that you have to either thin the plants by hand, or completely renovate the entire row, which means tilling under the entire thing and replanting new plants. Who would want to do that every 3 years?
Growing strawberries is much easier with my method. On the third year, as soon as the fruiting season ends, I'll simply run my tiller right down the center of the patch and till up the plants in the middle. My tiller cuts a swath about 18 inches wide, so this leaves mature plants on the outsides to fill in the center, and gives them all summer and fall to do it.
The following spring There's enough plants filled in that I can keep on picking. On the next 3 year cycle, I'll till up both edges of the bed. This lets me renovate the entire bed without totally starting over every 3 years.
When I till the bed like this, I also work in a good amount of compost as well, to help promote better growth.
It's also a good idea to till the soil (and new runners) along the edges of your strawberry patch to keep the plants from spreading further and further every year. I find that I have to do this a couple of times during the growing season. Since my strawberry patch is in my vegetable garden, it's no big deal, since I have the tiller out there regularly anyway.
With the exception of birds, and small furry critters like mice, squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks, the only real pest that I have problems with on my strawberries are slugs. Slugs will get on a nearly ripe strawberry and eat just enough it make it ugly and nasty.
It would be OK if they would stay on one berry and eat the whole thing, but it seems that they will eat a bit and move to another berry and eat a bit more and move...you get the idea - they will feed all night. If you have a lot of slugs, put out a few low, shallow saucers of stale beer at the edge of the strawberry patch. It seems that the slugs can't resist it, and will climb in to have a snootful and drown. This method will thin 'em out pretty quickly.
Here's a website that has lots of good detailed information on other strawberry pests:
Birds and small mammals can be discouraged (but not stopped entirely) by covering your berry patch with a light mesh or cloth during the fruiting season. It's been my experience that the damage done by these critters really don't justify much effort, so I don't bother with covering mine. Your experience may be different, and you may find that you have to take some action.
If you have one or two small critters causing the problem, try live trapping them and relocation.
Growing strawberries at home is only a bit more advanced than growing a vegetable garden. It's not hard to do, it just takes a bit more effort. If you've ever tasted freshly picked sun ripened strawberries, you know that they're well worth that extra effort. Learning to grow strawberries can be one more step on your path to food self sufficiency. Give it try - you'll be glad you did.
Berry Growing Topics:
Strawberries are kin to the rose family. So are blackberries and raspberries. Not to mention Apples, Pears, Peaches, Plums, Cherries, Nectarines, Apricots and Almonds.
Look at the blossoms of any of these fruit and compare them to a wild rose blossom and you'll see the close similarity!
It's a big family, and in general, a most important family when it comes to fruit growing. I think the whole clan is having a reunion in my back yard!