Extension Educator, Horticulture
Snowy days are the prefect time to leaf through garden catalogs with pictures so luscious you could just take a bite out of one. Strawberries are my favorite fruit for backyard grazing. I'd encourage anyone with a little space and plenty of sun to grow strawberries.
Strawberries are the first fruits to ripen in spring and are highly nutritious. A single cup of fresh strawberries supplies more than the minimum daily requirement of vitamin C. They are relatively easy to grow and dependable producers.
Strawberries are best planted in the spring as soon as the soil can be worked and before the heat of summer. The first week of April is a good time in our area. Be sure to plant at the correct depth. Plant so the soil level is just above where the roots begin. In other words, don't bury the crown or leave the roots exposed.
Three types of strawberries are grown in Illinois spring or June bearing, everbearing and day neutral. June bearers such as (in order of ripening) Earliglow, Honeoye, Seneca, Jewel and Allstar produce their crop in a two to three week period in spring. Everbearers such as Ozark Beauty usually produce three flushes of flowers and fruits throughout the season in spring, summer and fall. Day neutrals such as Tristar and Tribute will flower and fruit continually through the season. In a home garden a mix of cultivars works well for continuous production. Supplemental watering is needed for good summer production of strawberries. Soaker hoses or drip tubes are an efficient way to irrigate that also keeps the leaves dry to lessen disease problems.
Strawberry plants produce "babies" at the end of above ground stems called runners. If the planting is not periodically thinned of the extra plants, it will become so thick that only the outside plants next to the path will produce a crop. Established strawberry beds should be renovated each year after harvest to improve production and reduce diseases.
The matted row system of planting is the most popular method for growing spring bearing varieties. The plants are set 24 inches apart in rows 3 1/ 2 to 4 feet apart. The runner plants are allowed to root freely to form a matted row about 2 feet wide.
The hill system is the best method to grow everbearing and day neutral cultivars. All runners are removed so that only the original mother plant is left to grow. Runners develop from the same region as flower stalks so runner removal enables the mother plant to develop numerous crowns and more flower stalks. Multiple rows are often arranged in groups of two, three or four plants with a two-foot walkway between each group of rows.
Strawberries will grow in just about any soil, but the best production will be in well-drained and highly fertile soils in a sunny location. Before planting work in well-rotted manure or compost into the soil. Or apply 15 to 20 pounds of 10-20-20 fertilizer or equivalent per 1000 square feet and work into the top six inches of soil.
Straw mulch can be applied after planting. Strawberry flowers should be removed the first year of planting. I know its tough removing the flowers, but the first year of growth should be left to establishment of the plants and not production. However the flowers of everbearers and day neutrals may be left on at the end of summer to allow one crop the first year.
Strawberries are generally free of insects and diseases. Most diseases can be remedied with proper maintenance and disease resistant varieties. For more information on strawberries, contact your local county University of Illinois Extension office for the publication - Small Fruits in the Home Garden for $5 or to order PH: 1-800-345-6087.