Archive for the 'Fruit' Category

For the Love of Organic Strawberries – Part 2

Last time I talked about what kind of soil to plant strawberries in and which types to choose. Part 2 covers how and when to plant strawberries and what to do with them once they’re in the ground—other than harvesting and piggin’ out on them, of course.freshstrawberries1

Basic Planting Instructions

The most economical way to purchase strawberry plants is to get bundles of bare-root plants. They are more fragile than if you get them in little 3-inch starter pots, but it will save you money. Just remember to time your purchase to arrive within a day or two of planting and you should be fine. If you don’t plant them right away, make sure to keep the rootballs moist; you can wrap them in wet newspaper and keep the paper moist until ready to plant.

Most experts say to wait until an overcast day and to plant in the mid-morning. In northern climates—zone 5 and below—strawberries should be planted from late March to April. In zones 6 and up, strawberries should be planted in the fall for a spring harvest.

If you’re working with bare-root plants, put them in a bucket of water up to just below the crowns and let them soak for an hour. In the meantime, you can start digging your holes, which should be slightly larger than the rootball. It’s important that your baby strawberry plants are set in at the right depth: too low and they may get crown rot; too high and the roots may dry out and the plants won’t thrive. See Figure 1 for an illustration of the correct planting depth.

planting-depth

Illustration showing the correct depth to plant strawberries

Which Planting Configuration Should You Use?

There are a few different ways to plant strawberries: matted rows, spaced rows and hills. Here are several things to consider when deciding which system is best for you, your plants and your garden.

Matted rows. The matted row planting system is the most popular method for growing June-bearing varieties. The plants are set 18–30 inches apart in rows 3–4 feet apart. The runner plants are allowed to root freely to form a matted row about two feet wide. See Figure 2 for illustration.

straspcc

Example of the matted row planting system


Spaced rows. This system limits the number of daughter plants (i.e., runners) that grow from a mother plant. The mother plants are set 18–30 inches apart in rows 3–4 feet apart. The daughter plants are spaced to root no closer than 4 inches apart. All other runners are removed. This is probably the most labor intensive planting method but can result in higher yields, larger berries and fewer disease problems.

Hills. The hill system is considered the best method for growing everbearing and day-neutral cultivars and when drainage is a problem. Unlike squash hills, strawberry hills should be about 6–8 inches high and 2 feet wide. Two or three plants are spaced 10–12 inches apart in each hill and hills can be staggered about 12 inches apart. All runners are removed from the everbearers and day-neutrals so that only the original mother plant is left to grow. Removing the runners enables the mother plant to develop numerous crowns and more flower stalks.

How I did it. I chose to plant June-bearing strawberries; therefore, I used a modified matted row system. Because space was limited, my rows were only about 3 feet apart and plants were only about 18 inches apart within the rows. I had so many plants left over I started a second patch along the east border of my garden, next to my neighbor’s hostas. Even so, I STILL had leftover plants, which I gave away to another one of my gardening neighbors. Lesson learned: Be realistic about space constraints; no matter how much I wanted them to, I was not going to fit 20 strawberry plants in a 4 x 4 foot patch.

 I had too many plants (top right) for primary patch, so I made a second one! (bottom left)

I had too many plants (top right) for primary patch, so I made a second one! (bottom left)

Caring for Your Strawberry Patch

So we’ve located a good spot with plenty of sun and adequate drainage, prepared the patch by weeding and amending the soil with lots of rich organic matter. We’ve decided which kinds of strawberries to plant, settled on the best system—matted row, spaced row or hills—dug the holes and put those babies in the ground, firming the soil around each plant and making sure the soil was just below the crown and completely covering the roots. After watering thoroughly, we get to take a breather and enjoy our handiwork. But not for long; there’s more work to be done.

Mulch. Unlike garden favorites such as tomatoes and peppers, strawberries like cool, moist soil. Therefore, they can be mulched almost from day one. A thick layer of straw between rows and plants will keep weeds down and the soil cool. Pine needles also make a great mulch additive.

Remove blossoms. Pinch off any blossoms that appear the first year that you plant June-bearers. This will encourage the plants to grow vigorously and produce more runners. The payoff comes the following season when your patch will be bursting with big, juicy strawberries!

Maya loves fresh strawberries! Photo by Sam Pullara

Maya loves fresh strawberries! Photo by Sam Pullara

Everbearing varieties will produce two or three harvests throughout the growing season and will produce a full crop the first season. They do not make many runners. Day-neutral strawberries will produce throughout the growing season and also offer few runners. Experts say that buds should be removed the first 4–6 weeks after planting to help establish healthy plant and root growth.

Water. It’s important to keep your patch watered—especially when producing. Strawberries have a shallow root system and require a good inch of water per week. Soaker hoses under the mulch are ideal. I used a wand at the end of a hose and they did fine—as long as the leaves have enough time to dry before dark.

Fertilize and mulch again. Remove runners on the everbearers and day-neutrals and enjoy the harvest the first season. You can sidedress between harvests with well-decomposed compost. Simply move the mulch out of the way, pull up the stray weeds that are trying to gain a foothold, add a couple of inches of compost, being careful that it does not come in direct contact with the plants, and replace the mulch. It doesn’t hurt to sidedress the June-bearers in the early fall and mulch everything heavily (4–6 inches) with straw before the first frost.

How I did it. Exactly as described above: I mulched, pinched blossoms, sidedressed and mulched again. My own compost pile wasn’t ready that first season so I used organic mushroom compost in a bag. I didn’t have to do much weeding because I tend to lay down the straw mulch pretty thick. By the third year after planting I had a bumper crop of organically grown strawberries as big and as beautiful as you could find in any grocery store—but much healthier and better-tasting. With my next garden, I am going to include day-neutrals and have two strawberry patches. After researching and preparing this article I’m convinced that having berries the first season is a nice trade-off for smaller fruit.

Renovation

This section is from the University of Illinois Extension site; I have never mowed my strawberry patch, but I’ve heard it’s a good practice; unless, of course, you planted your strawberries in hills, in which case a weed whacker might serve the same purpose.

In order to ensure good fruit production, June-bearing strawberries grown in the matted row system should be renovated every year right after harvest. A strawberry patch will continue to be productive for 3–5 years as long as the patch is maintained. The first step in the renovation process is to mow the old foliage with a mower, cutting off the leaves about one inch above the crowns. Rake the leaves and if disease-free, compost or incorporate into the soil. Narrow the rows to 6–12 inches wide by spading, hoeing or rototilling. Remove all weeds. Thin the plants in the narrowed row to 4–6 inches between plants. Water with 1 inch of water per week to promote growth and to make new runners for next year’s crop (http://urbanext.illinois.edu/strawberries/growing.html).

Online Resources

AllAboutStuff.com: When, Where and How to Plant Strawberries

Iowa State University Extension: Planting Strawberries in the Home Garden

South Dakota State University Extension: Strawberries in South Dakota

Thegardenhelper.com: How to Grow Sweet, Delicious Strawberries

University of Illinois Extension: Growing Strawberries

University of Illinois Extension: Time to Plant Strawberries

Tip of the Week: For the Love of Organic Strawberries – Part 1

Whether you choose early-, mid- or late-season June-bearers, the smaller but more frequent everbearers, or the young upstart day-neutrals, a freshly picked, perfectly ripened homegrown strawberry does not exist in the same galaxy as its cardboard cutout, dry-as-sawdust store-bought brethren, let alone on the same planet.

Here are some tips on how you can grow the biggest, most juicy and flavorful strawberries ever—without using harmful pesticides or other chemicals!

**********************
When I read a few years ago that conventionally grown strawberries retained more toxic pesticide residues than just about any other fruit, I knew I had to start growing my own—because I loooooove strawberries. With the cost of organic strawberries—in season—hovering around $3/pint (I can’t even imagine what they cost now), I was eating a lot of pesticide-residue-riddled berries.

Not anymore.

The 3S’s: Sun, Soil and Regular Sousing
Although strawberries are easy to grow, these highly versatile nectars of the gardening gods require an abundance of the basic elements of photosynthetic life: lots of sun (at least 6 hours of direct sun a day), slightly acidic soil (between 5.5 and 6.5 pH, according to eHow.com) that is rich in organic matter and allows for good drainage, and about an inch of water per week—especially when the fruit is developing.

I’ve also read that, when choosing where to put the patch, to be careful to avoid planting strawberries where tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants or raspberries have been grown for the past several years. These plants can harbor verticillium wilt, which is particularly hazardous to strawberries. Every university extension site I visited, with the exception of Ohio State’s, listed chemical solutions for treating this pervasive fungus. Based on what I’ve read, the best organic solution is prevention.

Good drainage is important because strawberries have shallow root systems. They need plenty of water for big, juicy berries but cannot abide sitting in standing water and will rot. Some experts recommend planting strawberries in hills or in raised beds loaded with lots of well-composted organic materials.

How I did it. Other than the advice not to plant strawberries where tomatoes had been, I didn’t really know any of this stuff when I first planted my strawberries. I picked a section of a dormant flower bed for my primary patch. The fall before planting I pulled up all the weeds and turned the soil, which had been sitting fallow for at least a year before I secured my patch at the community garden. The nun who had tended the garden of which my patch was only about a third was very ill and couldn’t keep up with her garden. She died the winter before I began leaving voicemails for Sister Rita, pestering her for a veggie patch of my own.

My first fall at the patch I dumped a couple of 40 lb bags of organic mushroom compost on the patch (my own newly established compost pile wasn’t “ripe” yet) and worked it lightly into the soil. And that was pretty much it.

Poor quality photo of my strawberry patch a couple of months after planting (July 2006).

Poor quality photo of my strawberry patch a couple of months after planting (July 2006).

Everbearing, June-bearing—or Day-neutral?
When it came time to actually pick out what type of strawberries I wanted to grow, I was faced with an overwhelming array of choices. Because I had spent a couple of summers and many, many weekends working for my dad on his organic farm in southwestern Michigan, I knew there were everbearing strawberries, which, under the right conditions, would produce throughout the growing season, and June-bearing strawberries, which, like the name implies, bear fruit just once per year in late spring to early summer.

What I didn’t know was that within each broad category were a number of different choices: For instance, June-bearers have early-, mid- and late-season varieties. I suppose an ambitious gardener—or a strawberry addict—could cultivate all three to keep fresh strawberries on the table for a couple of months rather than the typical 3-week production cycle.

Everbearers produce smaller berries a couple of times a year (spring and fall) and don’t shoot off as many runners (picture spider plant offshoots that, instead of dangling from a hanging basket, spread along the ground, and then start establishing new roots once far enough away from the mother plant) as June-bearers.

Then there’s a newer cultivar I knew nothing about called the day-neutral. According to the Purdue University Extension office’s Yard and Garden News Web page, day-neutrals are a true everbearer and can produce fruit throughout the growing season, as long as it doesn’t get too hot.

May 2007 - First full season and both patches (main patch is at the top right of photo) are robust and setting fruit!

May 2007 - First full season and both patches (main patch is at the top right of photo) are robust and setting fruit!

How I did it. Although the space allotted for my strawberry patch was pretty small (about 4’ x 4’) I decided to go with the June-bearers. Aesthetics are important to me; I wanted to grow big, juicy, luscious strawberries, not the puny (to me) everbearers my dad grew on his farm. I figured, so what if I could enjoy them fresh for only a few weeks? I could (and did) enjoy the frozen berries I put up for months!

By the third season I was very pleased with my choice. My strawberries, picked ripe, not green and spiny like the flavorless store-bought berries, rivaled what you could buy at Jewel or Safeway in size and had irresistibly incomparable flavor. My mouth is watering just thinking about them. I can’t wait for spring!

On the other hand, although day-neutrals can produce throughout the growing season, they practically have to be treated as annuals, which means you have to replant them every year.

Next week I will finish my ode to strawberries with tips on their planting and care that will assure you of the most delicious strawberries you have ever tasted.

Online Resources
About.com: How to Grow Organic Strawberries
eHow.com: How to Grow Organic Strawberries
Gardening-Guides.com: How to Grow Strawberries
Purdue University Extension: Preparing Strawberry Patch
RusticGirls.com: Grow Your Own Strawberries
University of Illinois Extension: Time to Plant Strawberries


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