Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Plant Profile: Strawberries

If there's one thing that makes me think of summer, it's a juicy, fresh strawberry. I guess that and sun warmed tomatoes. Throughout the spring, summer, and fall months, we are always eating strawberries, as the season is just that long here in California. Sorry. Not sorry.

When you grow them yourself, they are at least 10 times better. It took me two tries, and four different varieties to finally get it right, but man oh man, when you grow your own strawberries, it's a whole new world of wow. Eating sun warmed strawberries, just picked, is like nothing you can get at your farmers market, let alone the grocery store. When I finally had the right mix, it was like eating Jolly Ranchers, no joke.

And strawberries are not just a delicious, fruit bearing plant, they are also a functional element in your garden. While most plants are low growing, bushy plant, depending on the variety, they can serve as an excellent ground cover and underplanting or as a repeated accent plant.

USDA Zones 3-10
Sunset Zones A1-A3, 1-9, 14-24, H1, H2.

Soil requirements Slightly acidic, rich soil that drains well. I wrote a post about how to create your own strawberry soil mix; I had my first success growing strawberries in containers and it's important to make sure the soil is just right.

Light requirements Most strawberry varieties prefer full sun (more than 6 hours) but alpine varieties can grow in part sun to bright part shade environments.

Uses Fruit production and ground cover. 

You can grow strawberries from seeds (yes, plant those tiny, tiny bits on the skin of a strawberry), but I would recommend bare root strawberries to make your life easier.

Bare root plants are dormant, usually young (a year old) plants that can easily and affordably be shipped. Not only do you get a germinated plant, but you also can know how healthy your plant is before planting by getting an inside the soil look at the roots. If any of the roots are soft, moldy, and otherwise unhealthy looking, don't plant that strawberry. Plan to buy extra bare root plants so you can be selective. I found the cheapest, good quality, widest varietal selection of bare root strawberry plants at Hirt's Garden.

When you get your bare root plants, inspect them to make sure they are healthy (no visible signs of disease, firm roots that aren't dried out, etc) and place in your fridge if you aren't able to plant immediately. Once you're ready to plant, trim the roots of your plants to about 6 inches and cut away any dead plant debris, such as dead leaves and stems, from last year. When you plant your strawberries, make sure to plant at the bottom of the strawberry plants crown; plant too low, and the plant will rot and too high, the roots will dry out.

There are several layouts in which to plant strawberries, which I'm not going to go in directly in this post, but I am working on a post detailing my pallet planted strawberries. There are lots of resources online about other strawberry growing methods if you're interested in learning more.

For the first few months (until your region's relative "June") remove the flowers from the plants so that the strawberries focus on growing strong roots rather than putting energy into berry production. While this may delay your harvest (and may mean no harvest the first year for specific berry types) it will mean healthier plants and many more berries in the long run. Patience is a virtue in this case. Because of the way I grew my strawberries, I also cut off all the strawberry runners--and will continue to do so--but depending on your growing layout, you may want to train them to a certain arrangement.

In the mean time, here's a little peak of my pallet's last year, with Miss Alta inspecting.

For me, this method worked really well as I was able to fit a lot of plants (~100!) in a very small, sunny, footprint.

Strawberries need water to grow, but also don't like soggy feet; assuming well draining soil, water your plants two to three times a week depending on the heat and if plants are producing berries (strawberries like more water during berry production time). Strawberry plant leaves and berries don't like being wet however to mulching with straw can help keep leaves and berries dry and roots wet. And try to refrain from top watering if possible to keep water off the leaves in the first place.

At the end of your first growing season, make sure to cut back any dead and unhealthy looking leaves and flowers. Personally, I take a slightly more aggressive "mowing" strategy that removes almost all leaves. I find my plants are more vigorous and healthy the following year. If you're in a cold weather environment, you will need to mow and mulch to keep the soil warmer (no colder than 20 Fahrenheit).

After the first year of growth when your plants are established, I would recommend applying organic compost as a top mulch at the beginning of the growing season to slowly release organic matter to the plants.

There are so many varieties of strawberries you can grow that prioritize different things from production to flavor to disease resistance as well as those that do better in certain regions. I've personally stayed away from June bearing plants (those that produce a bumper crop once in a season) for everbearing (those that produce continually throughout the season) as I would prefer to have a more constant supply of strawberries versus a burst of them in the beginning of summer. If I'm up for a canning or large shrub project, I will just go to the farmer's market and get some delicious strawberries in flats. To me, if you're going to have fresh, just picked, strawberries, fresh eating is a priority, which means a supply throughout the season versus a whole lot at once. However, if you have the space for lots of strawberries, enough for fresh eating and preserving projects, grow both! Here are the strawberries I've had success growing in Oakland and Alameda, CA.

Mara de Bois, everbearing. These soft skinned, small, and delicious berries are my favorite; right off the plant, they genuinely taste like jolly ranchers, but in a tasty, not too sweet, way. Of the everbearers, this berry packs the highest flavor and fragrance. I think you will also be hard pressed to find these in the market as the soft fruit is so likely to get damaged in transit--I have been on the look out since growing them, and still haven't seen them. These grow very well in warm, coastal Oakland and Alameda (USDA zone 9b)

Evie, everbearing. A delicious berry that grows well in 9b and with bit hardier skin, which is easier to transport and store.

Seascape, everbearing. These were my favorite berries until I grew the Mara de Bois; they have excellent disease resistance.

Alpine Berries These are an entirely different beast from traditional strawberries not to mention they can tolerate part sun and part shade. These berries are sweeter than your average strawberry, often with a pineapple flavor, and have a less juicy texture. I'm currently attempting growing two varieties from seed to use as ground cover in my part sun/shade garden--I'll keep you posted!

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