Is there a food that epitomizes summer for you? For me, fresh picked strawberries are the exclamation point that declares, "Summer's here!" I love how they practically melt on my tongue when they're ripe and still warm from the field. Read on to learn how to grow strawberries.
How to grow strawberries from seed
When it comes to growing your own strawberries you have three choices: start from seed, buy plugs, or buy bare root plants. Here are the pros and cons of each option.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of growing from seed is the sense of accomplishment you'll feel if successful. But that success is hard-earned as growing from seed can be tricky.
The greatest sacrifice you'll make growing strawberries from seed is that you won't have a harvest the first year. You'll sacrifice this harvest in order to maintain the health of the plant and thereby ensure more productive harvests in years to come. Growing strawberries from seed requires a lot of patience as they can take a month to germinate and send up their first leaves.
Start strawberry seedlings indoors in early spring. Try Elvira variety for an earlier season harvest and Florence variety for a later season harvest. And here's a nifty trick I learned from container-gardening-for-food.com: Put the seeds in the freezer for 1-2 weeks prior to sowing to help them germinate. Strawberries appreciate a slightly acidic soil so consider amending your soil-compost mix with ericaceous soil.
Once you see a third leaf on the seedling, then consider transplanting it outside. Strawberry plants can tolerate chillier temps, so plant outside once the ground can be worked in spring.
If seeds aren't for you
If you've determined that starting strawberries from seed is not for you, then you have other, somewhat easier, options.
A plug is what most gardeners think of when they think of a seedling. It is a single plant that has been grown in a growing tray. When the seedling is taken out of the tray it is a plug that you can directly plant in the ground.
Another option is bare root plant. According to Pistels Nursery, "Bare root is an agricultural technique in which plants are removed from the soil while dormant. This allows them to readily adapt to new soil conditions. Although they require a season to get fully established, planting strawberries from bare root stock is not only extremely simple, it’s also very affordable (approx. $1 each)."
There are lots of choices
You have a lot of great choices when it comes to varieties of strawberries. All varieties fall into three categories: June-bearing, ever-bearing, and day-neutral. By far the most popular are June-bearing varieties.
Strawberryplants.org has an exhaustive list of varieties and great information about choosing the right variety for your growing conditions.
Let's get growing!
In areas that experience winter, strawberry plugs or bare root stock can be transplanted outside once the ground has thawed. In warmer climates where strawberries can be outside all year, plant them in the fall.
Choose their growing location carefully. Strawberries require at least eight hours of sunlight each day, and they should be placed 18 inches apart. They will appreciate the well-drained soil that a raised bed offers. Also, don't plant them in a bed that has grown tomatoes, peppers, or eggplant for the past three years as the bed may be hosting vertericilium wilt.
The growers at Bonnie Plants give this warning about transplanting strawberries, "Be sure to set the plants so that their roots are well covered with soil but the central growing bud, or crown, is exposed to light and fresh air. This is very important: If you bury the crown, the plant could easily rot."
How to grow strawberries in containers
Strawberries are great candidates for container gardening. One big benefit of growing strawberries in containers is that you can move the container to take advantage of sun.
Containers allow urban dwellers to grow strawberries in small outdoor spaces such as a balcony. Also, strawberry plants can send out runners and then you may have strawberry plants growing where you don't want them. Containers (obviously) contain those runners.
Another option for growing strawberries in containers is hanging baskets. Not only do they add visual interest to your garden, but the elevation prevents slugs from finding them.
How to Harvest Strawberries
Harvest strawberries when the berries are completely red. When you pluck them from the plant make sure to take their green stem (calyx) as well. Picking them in the morning is generally advised. But, I harvest mine at various times throughout the day.
When troubles strike
You may find slugs on your strawberry plants. If so, get rid of any straw mulch near the plants and consider replacing it with biodegradable plastic mulch.
Birds like strawberries as much as you do. So, to keep them away from your plants, cover plants with lightweight bird netting.
Fungal diseases can be a problem with strawberries. The folks at North Carolina Cooperative Extension Services have some great resources on their web site. Check it out here.
If aphids and mites are a problem, make an all-natural spray by mixing 1/2 teaspoon of dishwashing liquid and 1 teaspoon cooking oil with 1 quart of water. Only use dishwashing liquid that does not contain any bleach, fragrances or degreasers. When applying the spray, ensure the tops and underside of the strawberry leaves are thoroughly coated. (Thanks to SFGate.com for this tip.)
Congratulations to you if you have a strawberry harvest that is bountiful enough to need to store them! (My strawberries never make it in from the garden before I eat them all.) The berries will fare well in a covered container in the refrigerator for about a day but not much longer. If your harvest is so plentiful that you've got more on your hands than you can eat in a day or two, consider canning, freezing or dehydrating them. Or give them to a lucky neighbor.
Why growing organic is (very!) important
Growing strawberries is a labor of love. They require patience, diligence, and more than a little luck. But once you sink your teeth into those juicy sun-kissed berries I think you'll agree they're worth the effort.
As you probably know, conventionally grown strawberries are on the Dirty Dozen list of fruits and veggies that contain the most pesticides. So there's another reason why growing your own organic strawberries is important.
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All images of strawberries via Shutterstock