Garden Gossip

with Ted Smith

Last week in Garden Gossip we talked a little about the interesting history of the not so humble strawberry. We closed the article with a promise to return this week and get our hands dirty with a little strawberry planting. Serendipitously, I just planted a thousand strawberries today here at Gypsy Family Farm so the experience is pretty fresh in my mind.

The first element to successfully growing incredible strawberries is selecting and preparing the best possible site. Strawberries need excellent drainage. For this reason, many people grow their strawberries in raised beds. When situating your strawberry bed, envision how the area looks when the spring meltwater is on the ground. If this is an area that stays waterlogged, or is even under water, for an extended period of time then you are better off moving to higher ground. Strawberries also like at least eight hours of sun a day. Even more sun is better. Good airflow is helpful in keeping mould and fungus issues under control. If ripening berries are in an area that has poor airflow they often become susceptible to a wide variety of fungi that render the fruit useless. Choose an area with quick draining soil. A nice sandy loam is perfect. Strawberries seem adaptable to a wide variety of soil types but sandy loams definitely grow the healthiest plants. Strawberries are also like most other garden fruits and veggies in that they like a slightly acidic soil. If your soul is highly acidic or on the alkaline side, take the time to do a little amending and bring the pH into the 5.5 to 7 range.

Okay, you’ve selected the growing site. What’s next? Getting the soil prepared for strawberries will take just a little time. First, remove anything such as rocks or sticks that will make planting difficult. Also, remove any perennial weed roots that may be present. Grass roots in particular are a huge problem in strawberry patches. Once the strawberry plants are in place it is nearly impossible to pull grass without also yanking up your precious berry plants. Spread about two or three centimeters of good compost or rotted manure over the bed and either till it in or turn it under with a spading fork. Now you’re ready to plant.

Strawberry plants come in bundles and generally have bare roots. These bundles should be soaked for a couple of hours to help re-hydrate the plants. 

Strawberries should be planted in a checkerboard pattern with plants about fifteen centimeters apart. Dig individual holes for each plant that are large enough to be able to fan the strawberry roots out across the bottom. Once the plant is in place, cover the roots with soil. Finish with the crown of the strawberry plant just at or above the soil line. The crown is the part of the plant where the roots end and the leaves start. Burying the crown can smother the plant while leaving it buried too shallowly will allow the roots to dry out. It pays to take the time and get this part right. Of course, that being said, when planting 1,000 or more at a time as commercial growers do, it is impossible to take this much time per plant. Most strawberry plants do tolerate a little less-than-perfect handling and live long and fruitful lives.

Once your strawberry plants are in the ground, water them thoroughly. They have very shallow root systems and will need at least an inch of water a week. You can give them even more during really hot spells for the first summer and they will definitely appreciate it. 

Many experts suggest removing all flowers and runners (stems with baby plants that grow from the mother plant) the first year. This will allow all the plants’ energy to go to the roots enabling them to become well established. I believe that with diligent watering and good soil preparation, your strawberries will be quite happy producing a crop of berries in the first year. They will still have about three months after fruiting to put down strong roots. I also like to encourage the runners as they will fill in any gaps and create a nice thick bed of plants that will shade out most weeds. Speaking of weeds, strawberry beds are one of the most important places to make an effort to be weed free. Strawberries simply cannot compete with weeds during their first year. Beyond that, the cleaner you keep the patch, the better your return will be in terms of fruit production.

For folks with limited space, try growing strawberries in containers. Water them daily and you will be well rewarded. Everbearing types are great for this and provide summer long fruiting.

Watch now for the full moon in June…the strawberry moon. This is when strawberries start to ripen.