Every summer as thunderclouds built over the Flint River and school gave way to softball games, we’d watch the U-Pick sign outside Fort Valley. At ten, the few weeks before they hung up the fresh strawberries sign felt like a hundred years. The weekend after the sign went up, we’d show up with smiling faces and paper grocery bags.
We knew the owners. I went to school with their grandchildren, and their pool was a favorite for summer birthday parties. They always laughed because my mother, who picked enough for 10 quarts of jam, hates strawberry jam.
That goes double for strawberry pie.
Every year, we nearly made ourselves sick eating all those strawberries fresh. A few weeks later we’d go back for more. Admittedly, we had help. You say fresh strawberries and aunts, uncles, grandparents, and that cousin you forgot you had will all be at your door holding out their bowls.
Today, the herb garden outside my kitchen window features a small strawberry patch. I call it my breakfast patch.
Strawberries, Annuals or Perennials?
Technically, all strawberries are perennials. If you leave them in the ground, they’ll grow year after year. However, they can be cultivated as an annual. This technique, called annual hill culture, uses either organic mulches or plasticulture and is the most common method used for large-scale production. If you’re research inclined, annual hill culture without plastic is also known as annual field culture.
Matted row systems produce strawberries for 2-4 years.
In the mid-Atlantic region, one acre of matted-row June bearer strawberries produces an average of 10,000 pounds per acre per year. The same acre using plasticulture (annual hill) produces an average 14,000 pounds per acre. Although annual hill systems are more productive, matted row systems are cheaper and easier to manage.
However, there’s one major caveat. Disease pressure.
A matted row planting in southern Georgia produces giant luscious strawberries in year one, quarter-sized strawberries in year two, and blueberry-sized strawberries in year three. At least, that was my experience.
Heavy frosts put the brakes on your garden’s pest and disease cycle. The closer you are to the tropics, the fewer frosts you have and the greater the disease pressure. Pull up a map of the United States, find Atlanta, and draw a line across the country toward California. The odds are that if you live below this line, your experiences with matted row strawberries will mirror mine.
If your climate supports matted row production, it offers the best yield for the money and time required. If it doesn’t, annual hill culture with or without plastic is your best option.
Understanding June Bearers and Day-Neutral
Do not think of June Bearers as June strawberries. June bearers produce their fruit once per year, usually during late spring and early summer. Hence, the name June Bearer.
Day-neutral strawberries are also known as everbearing strawberries. However, they don’t produce continuously. They produce three crops: spring, summer, and fall. Day-neutral strawberries typically perform poorly in southern regions.
The rule of thumb: if you must plant short-day onions, you need June bearer strawberries.
Additionally, all strawberries require temperatures under 59 F to flower. Greenhouse growers trick their strawberries into flowering by placing them in a 59F dark cooler for 16 hours.
Like blueberries, strawberry varieties are highly regional. Although some commercial varieties, including Chandler, perform well in most regions, contact your local extension office and ask what they recommend for your area and production style.
Due to high equipment and materials costs, this guide will not cover plasticulture in depth. Although plasticulture offers earlier harvest and better weed control than other methods, the cost makes it impractical for most home gardeners and market farmers.
Additionally, no plastic is 100% biodegradable. It may break down into pieces too small for us to see without a microscope, but it still exists. Plasticulture, including its manufacture and annual disposal, introduces additional environmental concerns.
If you believe the increased yield will offset the costs, An Introductory Guide to Strawberry Plasticulture and Results from a Multi-State Survey about U.S. Strawberry Growers’ Perceptions and Experiences of Plastic Mulch Films provide a good overview.
Site Selection and Prep
If possible, select a site with a natural windbreak on its north or northwest side. Good windbreaks include woods, hedgerows, and some living fences, including osage orange.
Plan to rotate your strawberry fields only if your space and growing conditions allow it. Do not plant strawberries in a field where you previously treated crops with herbicides or plant growth regulators. These will damage your strawberry crop!
After tilling, grade the area for drainage. Ideally, you want your strawberry rows to run from north-to-south. However, drainage is more important than row orientation.
Growing Off the Field
Since they produce a lot of fruit with little space, strawberries are well-suited to year-round greenhouses, as well as aquaponic and hydroponic systems. See the University of Arizona’s Hydroponic Strawberry Information Website for more information.
A field full of scrumptious strawberries is a deer’s happy place. One nibble and he’ll keep coming back until he and his dozen girlfriends have whipped out your strawberries. If you have deer, install a deer fence before planting.
If you’re rotating your strawberry fields, look into using an electric fence. These are more cost-efficient and easier to move.
Since strawberries have a shallow root system and require water immediately after transplanting, you should install the irrigation during pre-planting. Strawberries produce best with drip lines and micro-sprinklers. If you use overhead sprinklers, use them sparingly during fruiting because it can cause fruit rot.
Although furrow irrigation is still practiced by some strawberry growers, this method can cause root rot and is not recommended.
Before bloom, strawberries need about 1 acre-inch of water each week. Once they bloom, this increases to 1.5 acre-inch until after the harvest. During hot periods, they may need an extra 0.25-0.5 acre-inch each week.
PH and Fertilizing
Adjust the soil pH to between 5.5 and 7.0. Incorporate several inches of compost if your site has sandy soil. This will help it retain water.
Incorporate pre-planting fertilizer as follows:
- 60 lbs/acre of nitrogen
- 60 lbs/acre of phosphate
- 120 lbs/acre of potassium.
Adjust the above amounts as needed based on a soil test.
What about raised beds?
According to modern science, the perfect strawberry bed is 10 inches deep and 30 to 32 inches wide with a 28 to 30 inch top. A slight crown keeps water from pooling on the plastic.
Home gardeners may prefer permanent raised beds to more traditional hills.
Planting and Care
Typically, plugs ship 2-3 weeks before bare root plants. Check your frost dates and ask your extension office about the recommended planting times in your area.
In most zones, you can transplant potted strawberries in the spring.
Always handle strawberry plants with care, so you don’t break the leaves or steams.
See the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Commercial Production Strawberry publication Table 4 (page 13) to estimate how many plants you’ll need per acre.
Ideal Transplanting Age: 4 weeks
Transplant hole depth: 1/4“-1/2” less than plug’s depth.
For example, if your strawberry plugs are 2 1/4″ deep, the hole should be no more than 2″ deep.
Immediately after planting, rake soil over the top of the rootball. Don’t cover the growing point where the stalks emerge from the roots!
Bare-root Freshly Dug Strawberries
Strawberry plants can be stored before planting. If you need an extra 1-2 days, store them at 38F. For an extra week, store them at 34F.
Chilled freshly dugs take less time to establish. If the strawberry nursery is in a warm climate like mine is, ask them if they chill their plants before shipping. If not, you may need to store them at 38F for 1-2 days.
Prune the roots to 5-6 inches.
Lay out your plants in a trench. Then plant them one-by-one, so the middle of the crown is even with the soil. Do not cover the entire crown. Firm the soil around the plant.
Water within 45 minutes of planting.
After watering, make sure there isn’t a depression around them. You don’t want them sitting in a pond!
Matted Row Strawberries
Plant matted row strawberries in the early spring as soon as you can work the ground.
Row Spacing: 36“-48”
Plant Spacing: 18“-24”
As your mother strawberries send out runners and produce daughter plants, they’ll fill in the rows. The final bed will be 12“-18” wide. If you notice runners or daughter plants invading the aisles, move them back into the bed. After the bed is established, remove any daughter plants that invade the aisle or till them in.
During the first year, remove blossoms before they set fruit.
Once fruiting ends, renovate your strawberry bed. Mow it, till in the aisles and make the rows a little narrower than their desired width, and fertilize as needed. Thin plants until they’re 5“-6” apart, and add 1/2″ of soil over the plant bed.
After your strawberries go dormant (late fall, early winter) apply 4 inches of straw mulch; approximately 2 tons of straw per acre. Once the soil temperature reaches 40 F, remove the mulch. Most people push it into the aisles and use it for summer weed suppression.
Annual Hill (or Field) Culture
Plant annual hill culture strawberries in the fall, preferably at least 2 weeks before your first frost.
Although raised beds or hills are the most common method, check your soil’s drainage. They may not be required. They are always necessary if you use plasticulture.
Raised Bed Width: 30“-32”
Double Row Spacing: 12″
Plant Spacing: 12″; staggered double row
Make sure the aisles are wide enough for your garden cart or tractor tires; 22“-24” works for most.
Use mulch to control weeds in the aisles and protect the sides of your raised beds. A light layer of mulch underneath your plants will help keep dirt off your strawberries and provide some weed control.
Although annual hill strawberries are typically tilled in after their final harvest, you can keep them until next spring. Just apply a heavy winter mulch as directed for matted row strawberries. For day-neutral and early June bearers, this gets one last harvest out of your strawberry patch. However, these berries may be smaller than last years.
Pests and Weeds
Every deer, bird, and slug in the county will take one look at your strawberry patch and think “somebody loves me”. Deer fences and mesh bird netting are your friends.
As tempting as it may be, electric poultry netting is overkill. Simple mesh netting staked to the ground every few feet works wonders.
For slugs, start by removing any weeds, wood, or debris nearby and avoid overwatering your strawberries. If the slug problems threaten my entire strawberry crop, I will use an Iron Phosphate slug bait.
Exercise caution if you use any slug baits. Although they may be marketed as safe or approved for organic use, they can poison your dog and your earthworms. Some also poison people.
Keep your strawberries weeded, but avoid mechanical cultivation near their delicate roots.
Use row covers to both protect your blossoms from frost and have an earlier harvest.
Since strawberries are extremely heat sensitive and highly perishable, harvest them in the early morning or late evening when temperatures are cooler.
Harvest strawberries every other day. Select ripe fruits that are firm and rot free. Dispose of any rotten fruits. Avoid harvesting unripened fruits. They will not ripen off the vine.
Keep harvested fruits in shady spot and cool as soon as possible.
Store the strawberries at 32 F to 35F; 90% to 95% relative humidity. They’ll keep for 5-7 days.
At the Market
Before you harvest your strawberries and lovingly pack them into quart and pint baskets, break out the art the supplies and make a large “locally grown strawberries” sign. Glitter pens, optional. The marketing key is the phrase “locally grown”. As a bonus/talking point, hang up a picture of your strawberry patch.
Choose a few display and sample baskets, and keep the bulk of your strawberries cool. Remember that even if you picked your strawberries that morning, your customers only have a week to eat them at best. Don’t cut this time in half by leaving them in the heat.
Quart and pint baskets are expensive. Encourage customers to bring their own containers.
We all dream about a pantry filled with strawberry jam. If you have more strawberries than jam jars, try dehydrating them. You can also freeze them for smoothies.
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