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Strawberries

Selecting & growing strawberry plants

By: Sandy Feather ©2008
Penn State Extension


Q. Leafing through gardening catalogs this winter has me thinking about growing strawberries. What type of location on my property would be best suited for strawberry plants? Are there specific varieties you recommend? Is there any special type of soil necessary for strawberries to grow well?

A. Strawberries are one of the most commonly grown fruits in the home garden, and make an easy addition to the vegetable garden since they share many of the same requirements as those crops. They require full sun (at least six hours a day) and well-drained, reasonably fertile soil that has been amended with organic matter (compost or aged manure). Strawberries prefer a soil pH between 5.8 and 6.5. It would be best to start with a soil test so that you can make any needed adjustments to soil pH and fertility prior to planting.  


Test your Soil

soil test results

Soil test kits are available from your local extension office. In Allegheny County, PA, consumer soil test kits are $12 for the first one, and $9 for any additional kits ordered at the same time. The fee covers the kit itself (which contains complete directions for taking a good sample and understanding your soil test results), paperwork and a bag for sending the sample to the lab. Your only additional charge is the postage required to mail your sample to the Penn State University soil lab in University Park. The kits can be obtained by sending a check payable to Penn State Cooperative Extension to Penn State Cooperative Extension, 400 N. Lexington Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15208. Write Attn. Soil Test Kit in the lower left corner.

 


Dedicated Space for Strawberries

Since strawberries are a perennial crop, they should be given their own space where they will not be disturbed by annual tilling, and they should not be grown where tomatoes, peppers, eggplants or potatoes have been grown in the past. These crops are susceptible to verticillium wilt, as are strawberries. This soil-borne disease could have been introduced on those plants and can persist in the soil for many years.

sliced strawberry
Strawberry pie or smoothie?

Strawberries are classified as June-bearing, day-neutral or everbearing. June-bearers produce the largest fruits and are the type most commonly grown by commercial growers and home gardeners alike. They are best grown in beds. A bed of June-bears should remain productive for about five years. These types initiate flower buds during the relatively short days of fall that will bloom and produce fruit the following year. June-bearers produce a single crop from early June through July, depending on the cultivar. They produce lots of runners and daughter plants. Day-neutral types initiate flower buds regardless of day length and produce three flushes of fruit: one in June, one mid-July into August, and a third from late August until frost. They do not produce as many runners and daughter plants as the June-bearers. Day-neutrals can be grown in layered beds known as pyramids, small raised beds, or even containers (think strawberry jar). Day neutral plants should be replaced every three years. Everbearing types bear two crops through the growing season. Penn State’s fruit specialists recommend June-bearing and day neutral varieties over everbearing types for Pennsylvania gardeners.


Varieties of Strawberries

You can choose early, mid-season and late varieties of June-bearers to spread the harvest over a longer period. ‘Earliglow’ is one of the best early varieties in our area. ‘Surecrop’ is gets high marks for an early mid-season variety. ‘Jewel’ is a popular late mid-season bearer, and ‘Ovation’ is touted as “the best late season berry,” by Penn State’s fruit specialists. If you are interested in day-neutral varieties, ‘Tribute’ and ‘Tristar’ have been reliable in Pennsylvania. ‘Seascape’ is new variety that has gotten high marks from Penn State’s fruit specialists. There are many more cultivars of June-bearers you may wish to try – just make sure they are labeled as resistant to red stele and verticillium wilt. These are the two most serious diseases of strawberries in Pennsylvania.


Purchasing Strawberry Plants

Strawberry plants are often available at local garden centers, or they can be ordered from a number of mail order catalogs, including Daisy Farms, Hartmann’s Plant Company, Indiana Berry and Plant Company, Jersey Asparagus Farms, Inc., Jung Seed Company, Miller Nurseries, and Nourse Farms.


Proper Handling of Plants

Once you receive your plants, keep them in a cool, shady area or in your refrigerator until you are able to plant them. Most strawberry plants are shipped bare root. Strawberries can be planted in spring as soon as you can work the soil – usually sometime in April.  Soak the roots in water for half an hour just before you plant them. June-bearers should be planted 18-24 inches apart in rows that are 36 inches apart. Since day-neutral varieties do not produce as many runners, they can be spaced much closer together, five to nine inches apart. Plants should be planted so the roots are completely covered with soil, but crowns are just at the soil surface. Build a cone of soil in the bottom of each hole and spread the roots over it rather than jamming a tangled mass of roots into a small plating hole. Water the plants well after they are planted, then mulch day-neutral varieties with four inches of clean straw to help maintain soil moisture, moderate soil temperatures, and help keep weeds under control. They are extremely sensitive to fluctuations in soil moisture. June-bearers are mulched in December with the same amount of straw to protect them from heaving out of the ground during winter’s freeze-thaw cycles and to protect the plants from extreme cold.

Red Strawberries
Strawberries varieties are June-bearing, day-neutral or everbearing

In the first year after planting, getting the strawberry plants well established is the first order of business. To that end, you should remove all the blossoms from June-bearers for the first year. Remove blossoms from day-neutral varieties from planting through early July. Simply pinch them off between your forefinger and thumb. Subsequent blossoms on day-neutrals can be left in place and allowed to produce fruit.


Watering Strawberries

It is also important to keep strawberries watered during hot, dry weather, both to get them established and to ensure good production and fruit size in future years. An inch or inch-and-a-half of water weekly that wets the soil four to six inches deep encourages the establishment of a deep root system. Drip irrigation and soaker hoses are the most efficient ways to water because the water is placed right at the roots where you want it and kept off the foliage, reducing the incidence of certain diseases. Do not overwater during fruit formation since too much water will dilute the sugars and give berries a bland taste.


Strawberry Fertilization

Penn State’s fruit specialists recommend fertilizing June-bearers with 2 pounds of 10-10-10 per 100 feet of row about a month after planting and again in late August. In future years, June-bearers should be fertilized during renovation, after they have borne a crop of fruit. Fertilization during fruit production causes the berries to be very soft.

 

Since day-neutral varieties are productive over a longer period, it makes sense to spread fertilizer applications for those types over a longer period. That recommendation is for one pound of ammonium nitrate (34-0-0) per 100 feet of row once a month from June through September 1. Organic gardeners can substitute an organic fertilizer such as Espoma’s Garden Tone® (4-6-6), Bradfield Organics Blood Meal (13-0-0), Bradfield Organics All Purpose 5-5-5, or Nature Safe’s 13-0-0 Blending Base Fertilizer. Please visit those company’s web sites for purchasing information. Always apply fertilizers when the plants are dry and brush fertilizer granules off the foliage when you are finished to avoid burning the leaves.

chocolate-dipped strawberry
Chocolate-dipped strawberries for dessert?

The final task for the first year is to mulch June-bearers in December – after the ground freezes. Four inches of clean straw is recommended. The point is to keep the ground frozen to minimize winter’s freeze-thaw cycles, not to keep the plants warm. Apply the mulch evenly, and break up large clumps to avoid smothering individual plants. The mulch must be pulled back from the plants in early spring – from mid-March to early April – once we are past danger of hard frost in order to avoid severe leaf yellowing. The mulch is pulled into rows or alongside the bed where it can be pulled back over the plants in a hurry when late frost is predicted. It also serves as a bed for the developing fruits to keep them out of the mud.


Over the Years

In following years, immediately after the June-bearers have produced their crop, the bed(s) must be renovated. This involves removing plants that have rooted outside of the defined rows and thinning plants in the rows to allow for good air circulation and maximum sun exposure for each plant. Start by weeding the bed, and narrowing the planted rows to six to twelve inches. Remove 3- or 4-year old mother plants and replace them with vigorous runner or daughter plants to rejuvenate the planting. Trim the leaves off by hand or set your mower up as high is it goes to mow them off. Avoid cutting into the crowns. Fertilize with 5 pounds of 10-10-10 per hundred feet of row, and irrigate as needed to apply an inch of water a week during dry periods. Day-neutral strawberries should not be renovated.

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