Strawberries are a hardy perennial herbaceous plant with a crop life of about 3 years.
Although growing strawberries does require some care and attention, the mouth watering berries and distinctive aroma, have made the strawberry one of the best loved of all summer fruit. Although growing strawberries does require some care and attention they are a very rewarding crop for the amateur gardener. They are one of the quickest cropping of the fruits and some summer varieties can give an excellent crop in their first year.
Types Of Strawberries
There are two main groups of Strawberries grown by the amateur, summer fruiting and perpetuals. of these the Summer Fruiters are by far the most popular, even though they generally only crop once per season. There are a few varieties of summer fruiters that can bear a second crop in the Autumn if they have favorable conditions.
Perpetual strawberries, will produce fruit from the beginning of mid-summer continuing through well into the late Autumn if the conditions are right. If you are growing both types of strawberry then you may wish to remove the first trusses of flowers from your perpetual strawberries so that the two types do not overlap in their cropping. Also removing the first trusses helps to ensure a heavier yield from the following trusses of flowers. Perpetual strawberries do not produce such large fruit as the summer fruiters, they also tend not to produce as many runners. There is an exception to this which is know as the climbing strawberry as it does produce long runners and can be trained and tied to trellises.
Unlike other fruits the fruits of the strawberry are produced on low-growing, herbaceous plants. The cropping life of the strawberry is short, at most 4 years and as such the plants are replaced every three years or so. However as most varieties readily reproduce themselves from runners, provided, that your plants are healthy this does not cause a problem.
Although strawberries are traditionally grown in beds, they do very well when grown in containers, and growing strawberries in containers is becoming more popular. It also has great advantages for those who do not have the space for the traditional bed. For more information on this goto How to grow strawberries in containers.
Strawberries are susceptible to a number of virus diseases how ever by buying certified plants to start with and then maintaining the right growing conditions this should not cause any trouble to the gardener.
A suitable soil and site.
Strawberries bloom early in the year and the flowers are very close to the ground, they are susceptible to frost. Those flowers that have been hit by a frost turn black in the middle and will not produce fruit. Therefore the ideal site for growing strawberries is frost free, raised slightly and should be open. If your plot is on a slope grow your strawberries at the top of the slope as this will help to prevent frost damage.
The ideal site is also sunny as this will give the best yield, however early crops will need some shelter as well as if the site is too windy the insects that pollinate the flowers will be less likely to visits the flowers.
In the wild strawberries are to be found growing in rich woodland soil and it is this type of soil that we most try to recreate to get the most successful crop. The ideal soil is deep with plenty of organic matter (compost, leaf mould, manure) it is so both well drained and moisture retentive as the crops are reliant on a steady supply of water during the growing season.Also the soil should be slightly acidic (pH 6.5).
If possible avoid growing strawberries on soil that was recently laid to turf, and also avoid growing next to lawns, the reason for this is that there is a high likelihood that there will be a large population of wireworm in the soil which can damage the strawberry plants.
Most people who grow strawberries in a bed find it more convenient to do so as part of the vegetable garden, as the beds need to be rotated every three years or so, just avoid following on from potatoes and do not grow potatoes next to the strawberry be, as they are subject to a number of the same diseases.
Soil Preparation and Planting
If you are going to grow your strawberries in beds start by prepare the the soil at least one month before planting and sooner if possible. If it is a new site that has not be used before remove the top layer of soil to one side and then dig over the soil at the bottom ensure to remove all traces of roots. Return the top soil again ensuring all traces of weeds have been removed. If the ground has previously been well prepared for previous vegetable crops lightly fork over removing all traces of weeds.
Dig in half a barrow load of well-rotted manure or garden compost per square metre (sq yd). This will help to break up heavy clay soils and improved the water retention properties of a light sandy soil. Once this is done lightly roll or tread down the surface and rake the soil smooth.
Summer fruiting strawberries should be planted in late summer to early autumn or in mid-spring. Perpetual strawberries are planted in late autumn if soil conditions are right if not wait until spring, this delay will not cause you to lose a crop. The soil should be crumbly and not sticky, if it has rained it may be better to wait a little while so that the soil is not sticky, on the other hand you do not want the soil to be too dry.
The spacing of the strawberry plants will depend on a number of factors, the closer the plants the higher the over all yield from the bed as you can get more plants in, but then the yield per plant is reduced, plus the size of the berries will be smaller. A good compromise is to plant at 45cm (18") intervals along the row with 75cm (2'6") between the rows, these spacing should be increased around those plants that you intend to propagate from.
Strawberries can be awkward if they are not planted at the right depth, Planted too high and they dry out, too low and they rot. The top of the soil should be just midway up the crown. To plant make a shallow hole about 6 cm (2.5") deep and 15cm (6") in diameter, then make a mound in the middle of the hole which is 5 cm( 2") high. Set the plant on top of the mound and then spread the roots down and around the mound, then gently cover with soil so that the soil covers the roots and comes midway up the crown. If your plants are in peat pots leave them in the pots and soak the pots in water for 10 minutes, then plant with the pot rim level with the soil surface.
Cultivation and Care of the Strawberry.
Immediately after planting you will need to water the plants frequently, possibly everyday in summer until the plants have become established. Once they are established you will probably not have to water them again unless there is a drought, until the fruits are beginning to swell. You will then need to water them once at a rate of 20L per sq m (4.5 gal per sq yd), this should be it unless the weather is very dry.
As already mentioned Strawberries propagate by sending out runners with a plantlet at each joint, these stolons start to appear in late spring. Cut these off with a sharp knife at their pint of origin unless they are needed for propagation.
If the ground was prepared well then they will be no need to feed the plants, however all competing weeds need to be removed as soon as possible either by light hoeing or hand weeding again this should be easy if the ground was properly prepared and all traces of perennial weeds removed at that time.
Now we come to the part that most gardeners have the patience for, the removal of the first blossom in the plants first spring, doing this will more than double the crop in future years. It also absolutely essential to do this for Autumn plant summer fruiters and for the perpetual varieties.
Care of the Fruit
Traditionally strawberry beds are covered with barley straw, this is done to keep the ripening fruit off the ground and free from soil splashes, it also acts as a mulch helping to conserve soil moisture and keep weeds down. However the straw should not be laid down until the weight of the berries starts to pull them down, then spread the straw thickly and evenly around each plant tucking it under fruit.
There are special strawberries mats available that can be used instead of straw or indeed black plastic can be used both are kept in place with a few stones but it is essential that they slope away from the plants so that pools of water cannot collect around the plants and hence cause them to rot. Before putting the mats or plastic into place spread a few organic slug pellets around the plants.
It will be necessary to protect the crop form birds, mice and squirrels, this can be done with either a permanent fruit cage or by covering with a light weight plastic netting. Drive short posts into the soil and place inverted glass jars over the top of the post, this gives eye protection and helps the netting to slide without catching, run taut wires between the posts, this frame can be left in place for the life of the bed. Put the netting in place once the fruit starts to swell as the mice and squirrels will eat the fruit whilst it is still green.
Harvesting the Strawberries.
The cropping season for strawberries is about three weeks, but in very hot seasons it can be as short as a week. Perpetual strawberries have a much smaller crop at any one time, but do continue to produce fruit over several months. As Soon as the fruits have reached their full size they will colour quickly, pick them when they are still firm and evenly coloured. Try to pick wine the weather is fine and the fruits are dry as this will help to stop the strawberries going mouldy so quickly, ideally you should pick on a daily basis, as this avoids over ripe fruit.
Always pick and handle the berries by the stalk and leave the stalk in place until just before serving. Use the fruits as quickly as possible as they do not remain at their best for long, maybe a couple of days.
As you are harvesting inspect the bed and remove any damaged or rotting fruit, this will help reduce the risk of the spread of disease, do not leave the infected berries on the ground or put them in the compost instead they should be burnt.