Strawberries

Strawberries: Introduction


 

    "Strawberries are a luxury and nothing more."

        Farming for Self-Sufficiency:  Independence on a 5-Acre Farm, John and Sally Seymour

    "...but what a luxury!"

        Tumbledown   

Fresh Picked Strawberries
Check out our Strawberry Album

     Once again, my tastes are more akin to Gene Logsdon's than John Seymour's when it comes to the supremacy of the strawberry:  "I can think of 2 very good reasons why every gardener or farmer should grow strawberries.  The first reason is a bowl of strawberries and cream; the second is strawberries, cream and shortcake."  (Successful Berry Growing, p. 15)  And I think the editors of the Farm Journal got it just right on this matter of the importance of strawberries:  "We wish we could prevail upon everybody who has even a patch of land, to set out a bed of strawberries this spring, take good care of them through the season, and revel in this delicious fruit next summer.  Surely we cannot do our people a better service than to persuade them to give immediate attention to this important matter."

    Thankfully, “fresh” strawberries are plentiful most years in May and June in Indianapolis, being served at the ubiquitous "strawberry festivals" (like the one held the day I started working on this page, June 14, 2007, on Monument Circle in downtown Indy, an annual event sponsored by Christ Church Cathedral Women) and hawked by the various u-pick farms and farmers' markets.  They can also be had--not very good, but still had--at area supermarkets out of season (can you really call them "fresh"?), shipped from California and other foreign places for $3.00 / lb. and up.  Like so many things in life, they are much better fresh and free (except for the sweat and the cost of the plants) from your own garden.  

Three Types of Strawberries:

Summer-Fruiting (Junebearing)

     These produce all of their strawberries in a two-three week period in late spring to early summer or early- to midsummer (May-June in Indianapolis, as late as July in Maine and Michigan, or as early as April in Florida), with no fall crop, or at most only a very small one.  These are often sold with an additional indication of relative time of maturation: "early season," "early midseason," "late midseason"--or simply "early," "middle" and "late."

Everbearing (Perpetual and Day Neutral)

     Everbearing, or "perpetual-bearing," strawberries actually produce berries for a short time in the late spring and early summer, then mostly stop producing until fall.  (The hiatus is usually about two months long).  In fall they may produce one small crop, or successive crops of berries until heavy frost or diminishing daylight destroys or stops the production of blooms.  Some varieties are "Day Neutral," which means they are unaffected by the lengthening days of mid-season and never take a hiatus.  Thus they produce far more berries throughout the summer.  However, these "Day Neutral" varieties have a reputation for being sensitive and in need of pampering.  Tumbledown has never tried any of the "Day Neutral" varieties.  (Perhaps that should be next year's project.)

Alpine

     These plants, often grown from seed or divisions (rather than from runners or dormant plants), produce very small, intensely flavored strawberries from early-midsummer until frost.

  

Ozark Beauty, an Everbearing Strawberry

 

[Photo: Ozark Beauty, an Everbearing strawberry variety, June, one full year after planting.] 

Strawberry Varieties:

              I have grown the following varieties, all recommended (though none of the non-alpine varieties has yet matched the flavor I remember in the strawberries of my childhood): Tribute (Everbearing [J. E. Miller Nurseries, Inc.]), Ozark Beauty (Everbearing [J. E. Miller Nurseries, Inc.]), Jewel (Summer-Fruiting [Jung, $8.95 per 25], Late midseason; planted spring 2007), Sarian (alpine, from seed, Johnny's Selected Seeds), Sparkle (Junebearing [R.H.Shumway, $8.75 per 25], Late season; planted spring 2008).  My favorite so far of all the ones I've tried is Jewel, because of the amount and size of berries, ease of picking, and (above all!) taste.  The comments that follow relate directly to my experience growing these varieties in the Midwest (Indiana), but most of the information will also be applicable to other varieties and can be adapted to other climates and soil conditions.  Occasionally you will find lists in catalogs and reference books of available varieties divided by region (Northern, Southern, Western, Eastern).

Other varieties available:
  • Summer-Fruiting
    • Early
      • Annapolis
      • Atlas
      • Earlidawn
      • Blakemore
      • Cavendish
      • Dabreak
      • Dunlap
      • Earlibelle
      • Earliglo*
      • Earliglow
      • Florida Ninety
      • Headliner
      • Honeoye*
      • Hood (sometimes listed as Midseason)
      • Midland
      • Northeaster
      • Premier
      • Redchief
      • Redglow
      • Sequoia
      • Sunrise
      • Surecrop
      • Winona
      • Veestar*
    • Midseason
      • Aliso
      • Apollo
      • Atlas
      • Cardinal*
      • Catskill*
      • Empire
      • Fairfax
      • Raritan
      • Shasta
      • Fletcher
      • Fresno
      • Guardian
      • Kent*
      • Marshall
      • Midway
      • Mira
      • Raritan*
      • Redcoat
      • Secord*
      • Tioga
    • Late Midseason
      • Albritton
      • Armore
      • Hood
      • Jewel (sometimes spelled Jewell)
      • Northwest
      • Puget Sound
      • Robinson
    • Late
      • Abundant Sparkle
      • Allstar*
      • Badgerbelle
      • Cabot
      • Columbia
      • Garnet
      • Jerseybelle
      • Lateglo*
      • Marlate
      • Siletz
      • Sparkle*
      • Tennessee Beauty (sometimes listed as Midseason)
    • Very Late
      • Redstar
      • Vesper
  • Everbearing
    • Autumn Beauty*
    • Festival (day neutral)
    • Ft. Laramie
    • Gem
    • Ogallala*
    • Ozark Beauty (syn. Cross's Beauty)
    • Rockhill
    • Tribute
    • Tristar (day neutral)
  • Alpine    
    • Alexandria
    • Baron Solemacher
    • Mignonette*
    • Pineapple Crush*
    • Sarian
*indicates a variety recommended by other growers for its flavor.

     If you want to read the man who wrote the book on strawberry varieties, check out The Strawberry: History, Breeding and Physiology by George M. Darrow on the USDA site.

Strawberry Planting:

        Every book will tell you that strawberries should be planted "as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring.(They can also be planted in the fall; some recommend this only for those living further south, some only for those in colder climes.  I have never tried fall planting at Tumbledown Farm, so I can't say for sure who's right on that score.)  I will tell you that on a heavy clay soil, the plants always arrive from their nurseries a month before the ground is ready to plant.  The soil must be thawed enough to stick a fork into it without the tines breaking, of course, but in my experience the soil has never been dry enough to work.  In other words, at Tumbledown Farm, spring-time soil is always "sticky, elastic, rubbery or slippery" or hard as rocks--i.e., it never "crumbles apart easily"--and yet the strawberries still manage to survive, sometimes even to thrive.  (For instructions about improving your soil condition, see Logsdon's Gardener's Guide to Better Soil or Tumbledown Farm's soil fertility page.)  The usual recommendation, if the plants arrive before the ground is ready, is to put plants in a plastic bag with holes in it (so excess moisture can escape) and to keep them in the refrigerator crisper until the ground dries out.  However, the plants will only keep for a maximum of (maybe) three weeks this way, and it takes far longer than that for my ground to be ready to plant.

row of freshly planted strawberries

[Photo: Freshly planted row of strawberries on moderately steep slope in a suburban backyard, with grass strips serving as terracing to retain the soil and prevent erosion.  The rows of berries just beyond are two and one year old respectively; winter mulch now removed from the tops of the plants.]

       

     Strawberries prefer a "sandy loam," but will tolerate many different soil conditions.  (For example, they do well enough on my heavy clay.)  They do not like to stand in water or to sit where the air pools and does not move.  In wet areas, they must be planted in raised rows or raised beds.  They like full sun, and sites that warm early.  They have shallow roots, so perennial weeds are problem competitors for nutrients.  (And you can't really cultivate them for fear of cutting the roots, so the best thing is to pull the weeds out by hand.)  For these reasons, and because white grubs like to gnaw on the roots, it is recommended that strawberries not be planted on freshly plowed sod.  If grass grew in the past year where you plan to plant strawberries, consider growing a cultivated (cleaner) crop first.

     Before planting, you must decide on a plan for what sort of patch you want.  There are all sorts of patterns recommended, some that utilize the runners that are formed to fill in the gaps in the strawberry bed.  I do not get fancy.  My garden does not allow for a bed (either matted-row or spaced matted-row system).  Instead, I plant a single row with plants spaced 12 inches apart.  I do not allow runners to root (as one would allow in a matted-row system), depending mainly on the lawnmower to make hash of the runners.  This increases the quality of the harvest, but reduces the quantity, which is usually maintained in a hill system by planting double or triple rows of strawberries.

     Actually planting.  As Logsdon says, "the fact that the soil line on a transplanted strawberry plant should come up to the exact spot where rooots and crown meet is the most publicized piece of garden how-to ever committed to paper" (Successful Berry Growing).  Indeed, the instructions are already accompanied by the classic illustration (three strawberry plants in a row:  one planted too deep, one planted too shallow, one planted just right) in the instructions for planting strawberries given by the editors of the Farm Journal in the book How to Do Things.  Logsdon's other instructions--to "form a ball of earth" in the planting hole onto which you place the plant with a gentle twist in order to fan the roots out in a fan shape "almost horizontally" rather than straight down--simply do not work on slick rubbery clay or rock hard dirt clods the size of golf balls.  Maybe it would work on "crumbly soil," but the best I can do to get the soggy soil into permanent contact with the strawberry roots is to plunge the trowel into the ground, pull it forward (creating a small crevasse in the muck) long enough to slide the roots down to the point tha tthe crown is at the appropriate level with the surface of the soil, then push the ground back with the heel of a shoe or the base of the hand so that the slit in the clay shuts, but without crushing or bruising the crown of the strawberry plant if possible.  After that, I water and pray that the plant will survive.  Maybe someday, decades from now, when the suburban soil has absorbed tons of peat, I will be able to demonstrate the "right way" to plant, but for now I plant the soil the Good Lord gave me.  It never hurts to trim the roots a bit (better than bunching and twisting them or letting them circle the hole at planting) or to soak the plants while planting (to keep the roots from drying out).

strawberry plant in ground newly planted

[Photo: A forlorn strawberry plant stuck in unaccommodating ground.  Watch out!  Rabbits love to eat these early leaves.  I wonder every year whether this year's row will survive Brer Rabbit's assault.]

     Strawberries should be mulched, but not picked the first year.  Any blooms that form should be pinched off so that the plants become well established before the winter.  Tumbledown mulches with straw in the spring and pine needles in the fall.

strawberries mulched with straw, spring of 1st year

[Photo:  Strawberry row (Jewel) during spring of first year mulched with straw.]

        After the foliage has died in late fall, as soon as the ground freezes, I cover the whole row with 6-8 inches of pine needles.

strawberry row covered with pine needle mulch and snow  

     In the spring, when the leaves start forming again, I remove the mulch from the tops of the strawberry plant, leaving it in something like a mulch basin as modest protection from the wind and frost.

strawberry plant in mulch emerging from winter dormancy
[Photo:  Strawberry plant emerging from winter dormancy amid pine needle mulch.]

Strawberries in a Crop Rotation

        Strawberries deteriorate after a few years of bearing in the same spot, so plow under your three-year old plants after the heaviest part of the spring harvest and plant a new bed in fresh ground where strawberries have not been grown for at least three years.  (Some folks allow plants to bear for four or five years, but that's stretching it.)  The sample rotations that follow below will allow two (of the six) rows of strawberries to be in full production every year.

From Strawberries
[Photo: 6-year Strawberry rotation in spring.  This strawberry crop rotation is described in full below.]

     I have modified the strawberry rotation beginning with 2008 to add broccoli in response to something I read in Samuel Fromartz's Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew.  I have in the past grown corn in this 6-year crop rotation (borrowed and modified from Gene Logsdon's Small-Scale Grain Raising), but my space (single rows instead of a large block planting) is not ideal for growing corn.  I had already considered other options when I read Fromartz's description of Jim Cochran's rotation for growing organic strawberries on Swanton Berry Farm in coastal California.  His system includes broccoli, which is a favorite of our family and grows easily in rows.  Here's the kicker: the reason he includes broccoli is because it and some other Brassicas inhibit verticillium wilt (e.g., Brussels sprouts, but not Cauliflower, which is in fact highly susceptible to verticillium).  (For more information about the underlying research, ee Subbarao [2000], Subbarao [2001], and Muramoto and Gliessman [2005].)

     2008 Strawberry Crop Rotation
Spring Fall
Year 1 Plow rye (or mulch) under.  (See fall of Year 6.)  Amend soil with peat, manure, compost, greensand and bone meal.  Plant strawberries.  Pinch all blooms, cut runners.  Mulch with straw following light cultivation after two-four weeks. Cover with pine straw when ground freezes.
Year 2 Pick berries during June; continue to cut runners. Pick fall berries on everbearing plants.  Cover with pine straw when ground freezes.
Year 3 Pick berries during June.  Mow the row and plow under after crop dwindles.  Amend soil.  (See above.)  Plant green beans (legume).   Plant winter wheat.
Year 4 Sow alfalfa (legume; interseeded into the wheat) during last spring frosts.  Harvest wheat in late June or early July. Cut alfalfa once.
Year 5 Cut alfalfa once. Cut alfalfa once.
Year 6 Plow alfalfa; plant broccoli; double crop to beans or a second crop of broccoli.  (Incorporate the  broccoli plant residues into the soil to inhibit verticillium.  Whatever you do, don't plant members of the Cucurbitaceae or Solanaceae families before strawberries; that will only increase the chances that your strawberry plants will catch the Verticillium wilt!) Plow beans (or harvest fall broccoli and plow in the chopped up plant residues) and plant rye cover crop (or cover with a light mulch).


[Photo: 2008 6-year strawberry rotation seen from opposite angle.]

For comparison, here is the previous strawberry crop rotation, as originally borrowed and modified from Gene Logsdon's Small-Scale Grain Raising:

Spring Fall
Year 1 Plow rye under.  (See fall of Year 6.)  Amend soil with peat, manure, compost, greensand and bone meal.  Plant strawberries.  Pinch all blooms, cut runners.  Mulch with straw mulch following light cultivation after two-four weeks. Cover with pine straw when ground freezes.
Year 2 Pick berries during June; continue to cut runners. Pick fall berries on everbearing plants.  Cover with pine straw when ground freezes.
Year 3 Pick berries during June.  Mow the row and plow under after crop dwindles.  Amend soil.  (See above.)  Plant green beans (legume).   Plant winter wheat.
Year 4 Sow alfalfa (legume; interseeded into the wheat) during last spring frosts.  Harvest wheat in late June or early July. Cut alfalfa once.
Year 5 Cut alfalfa once. Cut alfalfa once.
Year 6 Plow alfalfa; plant corn. Plant rye cover crop.

Note:  Alfalfa, in addition to fixing nitrogen and generally improving the soil condition, is used to feed the domestic rabbits at Tumbledown farm.  Their droppings are an important part of our compost.  For what we do with the wheat, see our page about growing wheat in the garden.

Strawberry Pests:

Birds (Bird Netting for Strawberries)

     Birds are by far my biggest strawberry pest.  They will steal you blind unless you cover the rows with bird netting and yard staples.  Even with the plants well covered, as below, birds will occasionaly find their way under the net and require assistance getting out.  (After binging on your berries, of course.)  I cover the rows during the height of the season and then remove the netting in order to avoid hurting the plants.  (The net seems to encourage fungal rots after a while, especially if the weather is cool and damp.)  My bird netting (14X30 ft @ $12.40) came Johnny’s Seeds in 2005.  (Another supplier whom I have not tried is American Nettings, which is listed on our farming resources page.)  The plastic netting has survived for three seasons, but may not last another.  Perhaps it would have lasted longer if I had only used it on the strawberries, but the thorns on the blackberries and raspberries tear the nets when they are moved.  It seems a waste of money and not terribly healthy for the environment to throw them away so soon.  (Update 2008: used scissors to trim up the net and cut it in half [one net for each row of berries], so the net bought in 2005 is still in use and effective!)

strawberry plants covered with bird netting
[Photo:  Bird netting over two rows of strawberries.]

Rabbits

     Rabbits are a problem when the strawberries are first planted, and will kill a plant or two in suburbia, but in subsequent years, once the plants are established, rabbits are the least of the problems.

Slugs

     Slugs are a nuisance, and young ones attack the berries directly, leaving the fruit scarred with "tunnels" (grooves) and messy with their "slime."

slug on a strawberry
[Photo: Slug discovered on a strawberry.] 

Water Requirements for Strawberries:

             Water is especially important for the first two weeks after planting (and longer if the plants are not yet established).  Strawberries do well with 1 inch of water weekly during the whole growing season, but water is especially important as the fruit is ripening.  Otherwise the strawberries will remain small and will be hard. 

Nutrients and pH:

     The consensus is that strawberries prefer a slightly acid soil (pH 6.0-6.5).  The soil at Tumbledown Farm is pH 7.9, so I have some work to do to amend the soil over time.  (For the plan to replace nutrients removed by the strawberries and to amend the soil, follow the previous link or scroll up to the rotation chart above.)  Nonetheless, despite the high pH and nutrient deficiencies, the berries are living and producing when the rains are plentiful.

second year strawberry plants nearing production for the first time

[Photo:  A row of strawberries nearing production in the second year after planting.]

Strawberry Production:

2006 (from a single, 22-foot bearing row of plants):  Crop was 10 quarts between 05/30 and 09/27 (heaviest in June and September), not counting the berries eaten by birds and the ones eaten on cereal.

2007 (from two, 22-foot bearing rows of plants):  Spring Crop was not great (3 1/2 quarts), but two indicators are very bad.  First, there was a killer freeze of about a week with temperatures in the low 20s this year after the strawberries had emerged from their winter nap, delaying considerably the appearance of ripe berries.  Secondly, we went immediately into a drought (in mid-June we had been 4-6 weeks already without significant rainfall), so berries that did form were very small.  Fall, though better, still did not redeem the season.  The late frost and severe drought wrecked havoc on strawberry production.

2008 (from two, 22-foot bearing rows of plants):  1.5 quarts at first picking (06/01/2008), 3.5 quarts (06/06/2008), 7.5 quarts (06/09/2008), 4 quarts (06/11/2008), 6 quarts (06/13/2008), 6 quarts (06/16/2008), 4 quarts (06/19/2008), 1.5 quarts (06/23/2008).  Total for 2008, 34 quarts!  An incredible year.  Plenty of moisture.  Only problem has been some rot (too much rain at times).  

Picking Instructions from Pickyourown.org

Strawberry Bibliography:

Successful Berry Growing by Gene Logsdon. "The Strawberry:  A Better Berry There Never Was," pp. 15-49.

Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. "Strawberry," pp. 559-561.

The American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Gardening. "Soft Fruits: Strawberries," pp. 404-406.

The Strawberry: History, Breeding and Physiology, by George M. Darrow.