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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Strawberries-- Fragaria spp.

Few would argue that a sure sign of summer approaching is the first strawberries of the season. You may think "First strawberries? But aren't they in the store all the time?" That's where as modern people we forget that every fruit and vegetable at one time was only available fresh for a limited time each year.

The strawberry we consume today is actually a hybrid of two wild types, one native to North America (F. virginiana), and the other from South America (F. chiloensis). A botanist named Antoine Duchesne thought these superior fruits had a scent and flavor of pineapple, so he named this cross as a new species of strawberry, F. ananassa, from the French "ananas" meaning pineapple. This species is the origin of cultivated strawberries today.

Strawberries are a great small fruit to grow in your own yard. There are three basic types to choose from: June bearing, everbearing, or day neutral. June bearing produces one big crop of berries during a two to three week period in the spring. Everbearing produce three main crops in the spring, summer, and fall. Day neutral plants produce throughout the growing season. Day neutral and everbearing strawberries are smaller than June bearing types, but the plants take up less space, making them a good choice for small gardens. Day neutral strawberries are commonly grown in commercial production regions like California, to supply us with fresh strawberries most of the year.

Strawberries produce best in well drained, rich soil in full sun. Avoid planting strawberries where tomatoes, eggplant, or potatoes have been grown because is a risk of transmitting verticillium wilt, a serious strawberry disease.

About four years ago I was gifted a hanging upside down strawberry planter, cousin to the popular upside down tomato planters. For the strawberry version, the instructions were to plant individual plants in 9 holes plus one hole in the bottom for a total of 10 plants. I bought a bundle of dormant 'Earligrow' June bearing strawberry plants early in the season, and planted as directed.

The first year after planting strawberries in the garden, it is good practice to remove any blossoms that appear through the end of June, to encourage root and runner development. I didn't do this with my plants, because honestly I didn't have much faith that the upside down planter would work very well. My lack of faith in the planter was also why I bought a June bearing cultivar—my thinking was to at least harvest some early berries in case the planter didn't make it through the heat of the summer.

It ended up being a good plan. The plants grew vigorously at first and even flowered, but the few fruits that were produced were tiny. It was very difficult to keep the planter adequately watered—the tomato version of this planter has the same problem. Eventually I gave up on the planter altogether and never intentionally watered it the rest of the season. That fall I dumped the whole thing into one of my raised beds in my vegetable garden and forgot about it.

The next year I was surprised to find three strawberry plants had miraculously survived. I let them grow and produce lots of runners and daughter plants. The technical name for what I did is called a "matted row" and is recommended for June bearing types. By the next year I had a three by eight foot bed full of strawberry plants.

Another method called "spaced row" limits the number of runners and daughter plants to none closer together than four inches apart. It takes more work than the "matted row" method, but by limiting the numbers of daughter plants, there should be increased yield and less disease problems.

Day neutral or everbearing types perform best planted in a "hill" system where any runners that develop are removed. As a result the original plant channels energy into producing more fruit.

Proper maintenance is essential for good fruit production, and includes thinning or otherwise renovating plantings as necessary after the last harvest of the year. Cut back the foliage, leaving only about 2 inches of growth above the crown. Remove any weeds invading the bed. Narrow the rows to 12 to 18 inches using a shovel or hoe. Remaining plants should be thinned to about 4 to 6 plants per square foot. Apply a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 at a rate of one pound per 100 square feet.

Continue to water the plants and control weeds in the remainder of the growing season. Apply 3 to 4 inches of straw mulch over plants in or around mid-November through mid-December. Mulching will protect plants from winter damage. Personally, I have neglected the mulching step more often than not—and my strawberry bed has survived. It's likely that I've lost a few plants to the cold, but it hasn't been enough to notice.

If growing your own is not an option, consider visiting a local pick-your-own strawberry farm to support local agriculture while enjoying fresh picked strawberries. For more detailed information on growing your own strawberries or for a list of Illinois farms with strawberries for sale, check out U of I Extension's website

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