If you want to break into fruit growing gently, strawberries are the perfect introduction. Many a backyard grower, who get good results from the vegetables they grow, plant strawberries as the first step toward growing fruits. Easy to grow and high in fruit production, they can either be tucked into the vegetable patch or used as an ornamental plant. The white blossoms and deep green, attractively-shaped leaves, plus low growing habit make them a natural for borders or rock gardens. Convert the backyard sandbox into a raised strawberry garden. Punch holes in a rain barrel for a makeshift strawberry jar. The options for how to grow these plants are endless.
Befitting its popularity strawberry varieties exist in abundance and all are self-fertile. There are early-seasons, mid-seasons, and varieties that barely manage to ripen their fruit before the fall frosts arrive. You’ll also find everbearing plants that give you a fairly heavy harvest early in the season then offer a second picking just before the season comes to an end.
For early-season strawberries, try Earlidawn, Red Rich, or Fairfax. For mid-season, Catskill, Empire, Guardian, Midway, Robinson, Surecrop, and Redchief are reliable. Late-season varieties include include Jerseybelle and Sparkle. The double bonus varieties, termed “everbearing,” include Ogallala, Dunlap, Geneva, Ozark Beauty, and Superfection. Some varieties are better at surviving winter temps than others. Ask us or the CSU Extention for what works best here in Denver and your garden.
Because of their shallow root systems, strawberry plants are easy victims of heaving caused by the alternate thawing and freezing of the ground. The plants can be literally pushed out of the ground causing the roots to die. Look for a patch of ground that slants gently toward the north but which receives plenty of sunlight. Proper location means the strawberry bed will not be tempted into premature blossoming by a warm spring sun. At the same time, cool, frosty air masses will drain away from the plants into lower regions.
Soil slated for the planting bed must be well-drained for the plants to thrive; a slope is often a good choice. Spade soil to a depth of eight to ten inches and mix in a compost or dry bagged manure. Some gardeners plan on two stages. The first years they break ground and sow a vegetable crop. By the time the second season rolls around, their ground will be in excellent shape and generally free of stubborn weeds. Then they work in generous amounts of manure and organic soil conditioners, such as sphagnum peat moss or compost.
When purchasing plants, make sure they are disease and pest free when you’re picking them out at the store. Strawberry roots are numerous and tender. If not planted right away or if exposed to bright sunlight, they can dry out. If too many roots are destroyed, the plant won’t be able to recover.
Set out plants in early spring at the proper depth. If too deep, the crown will be smothered and the plant will die. If too shallow, the roots will stick out and dry out. The trick is to match the new soil line with the depth that the plant grew in while at the nursery. Or simply make sure the soil covers all the roots but does not cover the crown. As you work, protect unplanted plants by covering them with wet burlap or several layers of newspaper.
The strawberry grower has three planting methods from which to choose that depend on the variety grown and the yield desired: hill planting, matted row, and hedgerow planting. Close, dense planting results in heavy yields of smaller berries and open, well-spaced methods offer a lower yield but larger berries. The chief difference between the systems has to do with what you do with the runners, those tethered baby plants that develop from the main plant.
Hill Planting – For jumbo berries and the manicured strawberry bed, set plants 12 inches apart in rows spaced about 18 inches apart. Pinch off all runners when they appear to encourage a strong central plant.
Matted Row Planting – Many commercial growers opt for the matted row system because it requires the least care and maintenance. Set plants 18-24 inches apart in rows at least 3 feet apart. Allow runners to sprout and take root wherever they happen to land. In no time, the rows will expand into an entanglement of leaves and overlapping runners. When harvest time comes, there will be bountiful berries for your to pick.
Hedgerow Planting – The hedgerow system combines the best of the matted and the hill methods of planting strawberries. Nursery plants are set out 24 inches apart in rows about 24-36 inches apart. For a single row, allow two runners per plant to take root. The double rows allow four runners per plant to become established. Sometimes the young runner plants must be coaxed into taking root within the row. Use a clothespin or forked stick to anchor the tiny plant to the soil.
CARE & FEEDING
The chief aim during the first season is to concentrate on getting the plants well established. Since a strong root system is essential, make sure all blossoms are removed so that plant’s energy is channeled into root formation. Nip weeds as they appear so all available nutrients are used by the strawberry plant and keep soil moisture high by frequent watering. In the fall, after growth has ceased, spread a 3-inch layer of mulch over the bed to insulate plants against alternate freezing and thawing.
As soon as the soil begins to warm the following spring and the likelihood of a surprise frost has diminished, use rake to pull mulch off the plants. Proper timing is important because plant leaves will turn yellow if left under the mulch too long. A good indication of renewed growth is a fresh green color to the leaves. Gather mulch into a space between rows so weeds are thwarted and soil moisture is retained. Once the air warms, the bed will become a sea of white blossoms.
INSECTS & DISEASES
A bright red, ripe strawberry is a neon sign to birds. If plants aren’t shrouded under netting or wire, your crop might vanish. Use nylon netting, chicken wire, or treated cheesecloth as a deterrent. If the soil is properly prepared beforehand and the bed is kept reasonably clean, insects and diseases will seldom threaten. However, grub control and good drainage are critical.
The veteran strawberry grower can tell by the sweet fragrance in the air that picking time is just around the corner. Once ripening is underway, the process is rapid. Check the bed each day and pick berries as they ripen. They won’t store well for long so be prepared to cook or freeze them soon – or eat them fresh!