Care and Harvest of Strawberries
You won't be idle until your first harvest. You must not let the new plants set berries in their first year. They will try to fruit, but you must pick off the blossoms as they appear. This way, instead of fruiting, the mother plants will produce vigorous daughters that will yield well the following year.
Keep Weeds Away
Keep the bed weed-free throughout the growing season. Some people use a sheet of black plastic to smother weeds, leaving holes for the strawberry plants, but that's more work than weeding when it comes time to position the runners and the daughter plants.
Training the Runners
After 5 or 6 weeks in the ground, your plants will begin to "run." A first daughter plant will form and root, then the runners will set more daughters. Keep only the first daughter of each runner. It will bear better than a second or third daughter on the same runner. When most mothers have produced daughters that are ready to take root, it's time for you to establish the 9-by-9-inch spaced row system. Although it's more work, it's more berries. Let five strong daughters from each mother plant take root; clip off all others. (If you don't have five daughters on a plant, make do with what you have.) As these daughters grow, space them around the mother at 9-inch intervals. Weigh the runners down with soil, stones, or hairpins to hold the daughters in place; they'll root by themselves.
It will take two or three passes over the course of the summer to arrange the plants correctly and get rid of unwanted runners. While the arrangement may not look quite as tidy in your strawberry patch as it does on paper, you will have created three parallel rows with plants spaced roughly 9 inches apart in each one. Unlike other systems in which all plants are permitted to run freely, this system discourages sibling rivalry and gives each selected plant plenty of room to grow. The result is more and bigger berries. When the first bearing season is over, you'll do best to till in all the plants and start again. Each successive year you prolong their lives will yield fewer berries - and more weeds and disease.
Two Berry Beds
To have strawberries every year, you should maintain two beds: one to bear fruit and one to produce next year's fruit-bearers. After the harvest, plant a short-season vegetable where the berries were, if you like, then a winter cover crop like buckwheat or rye. Crop rotation has many advantages: the roots of the strawberry plants don't have a chance to get bound up, infestations of diseases are less likely, and rotation is an effective method of weed control. The following spring, you'll set new strawberry plants in that bed and begin the cycle again. Many gardeners prefer to renovate their beds, thinning out most of the plants and leaving some strong ones to produce runners and daughter plants for the third year. If you've enjoyed a productive, disease-free season, you may decide to renovate at least part of the bed for another year or two before cleaning out the whole bed entirely:
Renovating the Bed
Here are the basics in renovating an existing strawberry bed.
1. Just after harvest, cut off all the leaves with a scythe, sickle, or lawnmower set high enough not to hit the crowns.
2. Turn under the two daughter plants on either side of each mother row (preferably with a tiller), which should leave a 6-inch- wide row.
3. Add a complete fertilizer such as 5-10-10 (1/2 pound per 25-foot row) to the bed and get rid of all weeds. Thin the plants to stand 9 inches apart, leaving only the strongest ones.
4. Allow only two runners from each plant; set each runner 9 inches from the mother plant on either side.
5. Side-dress with 2 1/2 pounds of 5-10-10 or its equivalent per 100 feet of row.
6. Apply winter mulch as before. Await spring and your second - and somewhat smaller - harvest.
Harvesting Your Berries
In the second year, the berries will ripen about 1 month after the plants bloom, with the bigger berries developing at the center of each cluster. To harvest, don't squeeze a ripe berry; pinch the stem behind it with your thumbnail. Every 2 or 3 days, pick all the ripe berries. Avoid picking green-tipped berries - they're not fully ripe. They'll taste much better in a day or two. Don't leave berry remnants on the plants because they encourage plant rot. You can expect 2 to 3 weeks of harvesting for each variety. If you find yourself deluged by berries, you can make them into jam or freeze them.