Choosing Strawberries

By Susan Littlefield

″Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.″

Dr. William Butler was referring to the strawberry, and I have to say, I quite agree with him, especially if we're talking about a strawberry plucked perfectly ripe from the garden on a lovely morning in June. That's about as close to perfection as you can get!

While strawberry growing takes a little more planning and work than, say, planting lettuce or beans in the vegetable garden, the rewards are well worth the extra effort. And by including long fruiting, day-neutral varieties in your berry patch along with the traditional June-bearing types, you can experience the sweet delight of fresh berries all summer long. Then you can decide for yourself if, indeed, a ripe, red, homegrown strawberry is the pinnacle of berry perfection!

June-Bearing Strawberries
June or summer bearing strawberries are the classic type of strawberry. And true to their name, they usually begin producing fruits sometime in late spring or early summer with the harvest continuing for four or five weeks, depending on whether the particular variety is an early, mid-season, or late bearer. Although June-bearers fruit in the long days of early summer, the environmental signal that governs this timing actually occurs much earlier, in the short days (and long nights) of the previous fall.

The regulation of flowering, fruiting, and other plant processes by daylength is called photoperiodism. With June-bearing strawberries, the plants receive the signal to form flower buds as days shorten in late September through early November. It's actually the length of the night that the plant responds to, rather than the length of daylight. These buds stay dormant through the winter, and when the weather warms again in spring, the plants begin to flower and later, to fruit.

Summer bearing strawberry varieties tend to produce the largest, most flavorful berries, but once their one fruiting period is over, that's it for the season. When the harvest season draws to a close, it's time to renovate the bed to keep it healthy and productive. Mow off the foliage using a lawn mower with the blade set high enough to avoid damaging the crowns of the plants, collecting the leaves in the mower's bag, then topdress the bed with compost. A week or two later, trim back the plants by hoeing or rototilling to reduce the width of the rows by about half. After about five years, when production starts to decline, it's time to replace the entire planting.

There are many different varieties of summer bearing strawberries. To choose ones that are best adapted to the part of the country you are in, check with your local Extension Service.

Day-Neutral Strawberries
Day-neutral strawberries are a more recent development. They were bred in the 1960s, and as their name suggests, they initiate flower buds regardless of daylength, which enables them to fruit more or less continuously from early summer to fall, generally with three peaks of production over the course of the season. Their early summer berry production is not as great as that of the June-bearers and the individual berries are generally not as large, but their sustained fruit production makes them a great choice for many home gardens.

Another plus for day-neutral varieties is the fact that their harvest can begin the first year they are planted. With June-bearing varieties, the flower buds should be picked off the first season that plants are in the ground so that they can become well established before fruiting. The flower buds of the day-neutral types should be removed for the first four to six weeks after planting, but the buds that are allowed to flower after that will go on to produce a delectable harvest from late summer to frost in the first year.

Also unlike June bearers, day neutral varieties produce few runners. They are best grown in the hill system, with any runners that do form removed as they appear. The productivity of day neutral strawberries begins to decline significantly after a few seasons. For the greatest productivity, replace day neutral strawberry plants after three years.

Some widely available day-neutral varieties include Albion, Tristar, Evie 2, Tribute, Everest, and Seascape. Again, check with your local Extension Service for advice on varieties that are best suited to your area of the country.

Everbearing Strawberries
In spite of their name, these varieties are not as truly ″everbearing″ as day-neutral types. Instead they usually fruit twice in the growing season -- first in spring and then again in late summer into fall. While you can find everbearing varieties on the market -- 'Ozark Beauty' is an old favorite with large, sweet berries -- they have mainly been supplanted by the newer day-neutral varieties that fruit more consistently over the summer. Everbearing strawberries are managed similarly to day-neutrals. They produce few runners; are grown with the hill system; don't need yearly renovation; and are most productive if replaced every three years.

You may find that nurseries and catalogs selling strawberry plants often lump both day-neutral and everbearing varieties together into one broad ″everbearing″ category. You may need to read the variety descriptions or do a little research in references or online to get more specific information on which particular category a variety falls into.

Choose a site in full sun, with well-drained soil and good air drainage (to reduce the likelihood of frost damage). Try to avoid areas where tomatoes or their relatives (peppers, eggplant, potatoes) have been grown in the last four years to reduce the possibility your berries contracting verticillium wilt, a soil-borne disease.

If you are starting with dormant, bareroot strawberry plants, plant them in early spring. Many nurseries and garden centers now sell strawberry plants in containers, which give you more flexibility with planting time but are a more expensive way to establish a bed.

To plant using the hill system, set out strawberry plants in staggered double rows, spacing plants one foot apart, leaving about 4 feet between the centers of the double rows. Spread an organic mulch like weed-free straw in the bed around the plants to suppress weeds, keep fruits clean, and conserve soil moisture. Pinch off any runners as they form.

Planning Ahead
All strawberries do best when they are not in competition with weeds. If you plan on making a berry bed in an area that has not been cultivated before, it's a good idea to begin bed preparation the year before planting. Remove any sod, adjust the soil pH if needed (5.8 to 6.8 is suitable), work in some compost, and plant a summer cover crop like buckwheat to choke out weeds. You'll be all set early the following spring to get your plants in the ground.

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