Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lucious Home Grown Strawberries

Few fruits are as popular with the home gardener as strawberries. They require very little growing space, and can be grown in almost any garden. The plants make a good ground cover, the flowers are attractive, and the fruits are delicious. They can be grown in containers, raised beds or conventional garden rows.

There are three types of strawberry plants: June-bearing, Ever-bearing, and Day Neutral.

June-bearing plants produce one large harvest and quit. Whether they actually bear during the month of June depends on your climate zone. Lets just say they bear in late spring.

Ever-bearing plants don't actually bear forever, or even for the entire season. The first harvest in late spring is usually followed by a period of rest and another crop in the fall. Sometimes they'll produce a small harvest in the interim.

Day Neutral plants are insensitive to length of day and will keep on flowering as long as temperatures remain above 35 degrees F and below 85 degrees F.

Ever-bearing and Day Neutral plants usually produce smaller fruits than June-bearing plants.

Sometimes varieties are listed as early-season, mid-season, or late-season. What this means for most gardeners is relatively insignificant as the first harvest for all varieties is usually separated by just a few days.

Choose varieties that are known to do well in your area. Your local Cooperative Extension Service should be able to advise you. Purchase virus-free plants produced by commercial growers. Plants obtained from other gardeners may carry diseases that will infect your own patch. Viruses passed from garden to garden will diminish plant vigor and productiveness.

Fifty or so plants are sufficient for a family of four. If you want to freeze or preserve some for later, you'll probably need one hundred plants. One hundred plants will produce about 40 quarts of fruit.

Strawberries are usually treated as biennials, especially if grown in rows, the plants being replaced every other year. If using this method, do not allow the plants to form fruit the first year. Pick off flowers as they form. The plants should be stronger and more productive the second year. Ever-bearing plants are the exception; buds should be removed until mid-summer of the first year. By then the plants should be established well enough to produce a decent fall crop.

Plant in early spring as soon as the ground can be worked. Gardeners in the Deep South often plant in the fall. The site should be exposed to full sun (at least six hours per day) and be well-drained. If you do not have such a place in your garden, consider planting in containers.

Strawberries need rich, organic, well-drained soil. The planting site should be located in full sun. Cultivate the soil deeply and have the soil tested. If you don't have your own soil test kit, you can take your sample to your local Cooperative Extension Service. The charge is usually very reasonable. Call them first for instructions. The pH should be between 5.5 and 6.5. Amend the soil according to soil test instructions. You'll probably need to incorporate compost or fertilizer. If using synthetic fertilizer, broadcast it in the area a couple of weeks before planting the strawberries.

When preparing the bed, remove all weeds because strawberries do not compete well with them. A thorough job of weed and grass removal will put the gardener well ahead of the competition. Some herbicides are available which are approved for use in the edible garden, but I recommend hand-weeding and mulch for weed suppression.

If planting in garden rows, space plants 12 to 18 inches apart in rows three feet apart. The holes should be deep and wide enough to accommodate the roots without crowding. Planting depth is very important for the health of the plants. Crowns should be set at the soil surface. Plants set too deeply will develop crown rot. Those set too shallowly with the tops of the roots exposed are likely to dry out.

Strawberries send out many runners, producing new plants at the end of each runner. Those that end up in the wrong place can be removed and discarded or replanted elsewhere. More fruit may be produced if runners are not allowed to form. Keep the area free of weeds.

Raised beds are recommended if your site is in full sun but lacks optimal drainage. They also tend to be more productive for longer periods of time. If planting in raised beds, the beds should be no wider than three feet. Wider beds are more difficult to reach into for harvesting and maintenance. To keep a vigorous strawberry bed, you should also remove some of the older plants occasionally. Well-maintained raised beds may produce vigorously for 5 or more years.

If planting in containers, keep in mind that growing conditions remain the same. Strawberry jars and window boxes are very popular because they provide ample drainage and are very attractive. Strawberry jars are usually made of terra cotta with several pockets formed around the sides for holding the plants.

Strawberry plants should receive at least one inch of water per week if planted in rows or raised beds. More water may be necessary if the plants are planted in containers in which the soil may dry faster. Mulching with straw or compost helps to conserve water.

In colder regions, strawberries may also be protected during winter with a layer of straw mulch. Freezing temperatures often cause soil "heaving" which pushes the plants upward. Mulch can help to prevent it. In spring, the mulch may be raked aside before growth begins, but left around the plants to help keep the fruit clean.

Fall fertilizer application is recommended. A soil test will indicate the type of fertilizer and the appropriate application rate.

Strawberries, like other garden plants, may be troubled with various insects and diseases. Remedies, both organic and synthetic, are widely available, but it is not within the scope of this article to review products. Whether using organic or synthetic remedies, always follow label instructions.

There are two simple, effective methods for disease and insect control: crop rotation and companion planting. Crop rotation involves moving the strawberry bed to a new location some distance from the older bed when the plants lose vigor, thus leaving the pests behind. Companion planting involves locating strawberries in close proximity to other plants that repel insects attracted to strawberries. Similarly, certain plants have beneficial effects upon strawberries. Companion planting is especially appropriate for raised-bed gardening. Beans, borage, comfrey, garlic, lettuce, onion and spinach are said to be good companions to strawberries. On the other hand, strawberries do not do well in the presence of cole crops such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.

Discover the pleasure of growing and sharing your own home-grown strawberries.  You'll be delighted.

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