Strawberries for the Home Garden

I just finished a bowl of strawberries from my local supermarket. Topped with whipped cream, they were tasty, but they can't begin to compare with the taste of my own berry harvest that's coming soon. While I make do with berries from the store off-season, they make me all the more ready for the fresh ones I'll pluck ripe from my garden.

You too can enjoy homegrown strawberries if you follow a few simple steps. If you have the space in a sunny location, you can plant directly in the ground, in raised beds, or in circular pyramids. If you don't have much space, you can grow strawberries in a variety of containers. If you have to move the containers around to capture the most sun, place the containers on rollers for easier mobility.

Selecting plants. There are three main types of berries to consider. June-bearers provide fruit over a two- to three-week period in early summer. If you have room, you can stretch the season out by planting early, midseason and late varieties. Most varieties produce runners and spread to produce more plants and subsequent berries. June-bearers usually produce heavy crops of large, juicy berries. They are also usually the best berries for preserving.

Day neutral varieties produce a main crop in early summer and then smaller crops in cycles all season long. They don't send out as many runners as June-bearers, so are well-suited to hanging baskets, large containers, and strawberry jars. The berries may not be as large or quite as flavorful as those of the June-bearers, but they are still way above the flavor of most shipped-in strawberries.

Alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca) produce small, very flavorful berries. Depending on the variety, they may be red, yellow, white or pink. They make an excellent ground cover or can be planted in beds or containers. They are a favorite of kids because of their small size and great flavor. They can be planted from seed, and they also make good ornamental plants.

Within each of the types there are many varieties to choose from. I recommend you talk to your local Extension Service or independent garden center for recommendations for varieties best suited to your area.

Bare root plants are available in early spring and in some cases in the fall. They should be planted as soon as possible as long as the plants have plenty of healthy, non-dried-out roots. Many garden centers also sell plants in small pots that can be put out any time they are available.

Preparing the area. Choose a sunny area (minimum six hours of direct sun a day) where strawberries, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant or peppers have not been grown for at least the past last two years. I like to work as much compost into the ground as possible to a depth of 6-8 inches. A soil test will tell you if the soil pH needs adjusting (it should be slightly acidic; 5.8-6.5) and if any additional fertilizer is needed. To cut down on weeds, I like to spread out sheets of weed barrier fabric over the prepared bed. Then cut small slits in the fabric to insert the plants. If planting bare-root plants, soak them in water for about an hour before planting. Pinch off the flower buds of June-bearers the first year to provide sturdier plants that will bear more fruit in subsequent years. Pinch the flowers off day-neutral varieties until the end of June. To increase the size of berries, remove all runners from day-neutral varieties.

Keep the berries coming. To provide good crops year after year, renovate June-bearers after the last harvest. Remove any weeds, thin plants to about 6 inches apart and mow or cut off the old leaves about 4 inches above the ground. Spread a light application of fertilizer between the plants. Use a liquid fertilizer if you've used weed-barrier fabric. This will keep a bed of June-bearers bearing well for 2-5 years. Day-neutral varieties don't need renovation, but should be replanted every 1-3 years as bearing declines considerably on older plants.

Growing in containers. Most varieties of strawberries will grow as well in containers as they will in the ground. The main thing is to use a container with good drainage. Containers range from "strawberry pots" to hanging baskets, to most any type of container that is at least 10-12 inches wide and 8 inches deep. You will want a loose, loamy potting soil that retains moisture, yet allows excess moisture to drain away. Locate the container of strawberries where it will get at least 6-8 hours of sun a day. If the sun is coming from only one direction, rotate the container every four or five days.

If you live in a northern part of the country, you will need to protect containers from freeze/thaw cycles in the winter. The plants do need to go dormant for best fruiting the following season so place the container in an unheated garage or in a protected area covered with straw. If you have containers that you don't want to take a chance on breaking, you may want treat the plants as annuals, emptying and storing the containers over the winter and replanting the following spring.

Harvesting. The berries ripen about 30 days after bloom. Rely on your taste buds to determine proper picking time. Harvest every two or three days. Leave the green caps attached. Refrigerate as soon as possible and do not wash until ready to eat or preserve.

Until your plants start to bear fruit, check out your local farmers markets for the next-best strawberries.

Steve Trusty has a degree in horticulture from Iowa State University. He has been helping gardeners receive more enjoyment from their lawns and gardens for years through radio, TV, books, magazines, and websites.

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