Extension Educator, Local Food Systems and Small Farms
It's a long time between now and next spring, but it will be here before you know it. And for those of you considering a planting of small fruits, you really need to begin getting ready now. Often times the most popular varieties of plants are sold out shortly after the first of the year. So now is the time to place the order. There really is nothing in comparison to the taste of a freshly picked fruit- strawberry, raspberry, blackberry or blueberry. The store bought just can't compare!
Growing small fruits is not a difficult task. You'll need to conduct a soil test to determine the fertility level of the soil. Pick a site that gives full sunlight for a majority of the day. If it has a slight slope to allow for water and air drainage that's good. Hopefully it's a deep soil as well. These plants won't tolerate wet soils with standing water, so if need be a raised bed can be used. The raised bed can be as simple as plowed together furrows or more complex, using cement blocks or boards.
Order the plants from a reputable nursery; don't dig up plants from neighbors or friends. Small fruit plants die from diseases anyway (they all have limited life spans, the exception being blueberries) and the easiest way to get disease is by digging up older plants. Likewise, destroy any volunteer plants in the area. Go out 500-600' or so. These volunteer plants harbor insects and diseases. When you get your plants from the nursery, store them in a cool dry location until planting can take place- the sooner you can plant the better. We'll discuss strawberries with this column and address other small fruits in later columns.
There are some standard strawberry varieties that have proven themselves over the years. You should begin with these varieties and then experiment with others. Earliglow is the standard early berry. It's an exceptional tasting berry. However the size of the berry is small and it quickly gets smaller after a couple of pickings. Honeoye is the standard that all berries are compared to. It will mature 5 days or so later than Earliglow. It fruits for 3 weeks or so, and although size will diminish with later pickings, not to the extent of Earliglow. Its high yields make this a favorite. Jewel will mature about 5 days later than Honeoye. Excellent taste and quality picking are the traits of this variety. It will yield close to Honeoye but much higher than Earliglow. Allstar is another great tasting berry. The coloring of Allstar is somewhat lighter than other varieties. It will mature slightly ahead of Jewel and the taste is as good as Jewel. These are probably the standard varieties in our area.
Other varieties (and their maturity) that deserve consideration include: Annapolis (early), Cavendish (early mid), Darselect (mid) and Cabot (late). How many plants should you order? Many nurseries will sell varieties as bunches of 25 each. Rows should be between 3-4' apart, depending upon equipment. At the end of the year and for the length of the stand you'll want to have a row of plants between 14-18" in width.
You'll set plants anywhere from 18-24" between plants within the row. Spacing will depend upon time of planting (the earlier you plant the further apart the plants can be) and how aggressive the variety is (Honeoye is very aggressive whereas Cabot is not).