By Larry Hodgson
The sweet taste of strawberries: what a delight for the palate! I’m not denying that fresh strawberries can easily be found in any farmers market or grocery store, too, but strawberries fresh from the garden are much tastier when they’re truly ripe rather than days earlier. . . and they are probably the easiest of all fruits to grow at home!
Indeed, unlike other fruits grown in the garden, which are usually trees or shrubs and require a fair amount of space, a strawberry plant is a small perennial that could easily be grown in the smallest corner of the garden or even in pots on the balcony, terrace or window sill. Also, strawberries produce abundantly the same year you plant them while most other fruits (blueberries, apples, cherries, etc.) take several years to get to that point.
Easy-to-grow and instant results? You can’t complain about that!
With those thoughts in mind, here’s how to grow strawberries at home!
What a Choice!
There are many cultivars of strawberry (Fragaria × ananassa) on the market. Your local garden center probably offers a reasonable selection, but if you want to explore options, visit a home fruit specialist nursery, either online or in person, and you’ll really have some choice.
You need to know how to choose strawberry plants that will meet your needs, so here is one consideration: when do you want to harvest them?
Among the standard varieties, there are early strawberries (early to late June*), mid-season strawberries (mid-June to mid-July) and late strawberries (early to late July) strawberries. However, for the home garden, I strongly recommend everbearing strawberries. They produce fewer strawberries at a time, but over a longer period, from mid-June or early July almost until frost.
*Dates are based on harvesting in USDA hardiness zone 4 (AgCan zone 5). You may need to adjust somewhat forward or backward depending on the local climate.
There is also the “beauty” factor to consider. Most strawberry plants have white flowers, and those are certainly nice enough, but there are now cultivars with pink and even red flowers. Originally these produced many flowers but few fruits, but modern varieties, such as ‘Toscana’ and ‘Rosalyne’, produce as abundantly as white-flowered strawberries and are gradually becoming the most popular varieties for the home garden. And all varieties of pink-flowered strawberries are everbearing.
A Typical Perennial with an Odd Habit
The strawberry we usually grow is a herbaceous perennial (herbaceous means it has no woody parts). It bears trifoliate leaves with serrated margins and is much hardier than often given credit for being: up to USDA hardiness zone 2 with decent winter covering.
It’s a small plant, rarely reaching more than 8 in (20 cm) in height and 18 in (45 cm) in diameter and forms a dome-shaped, ground-hugging mound.
The five-petaled flowers are produced on short stalks, which lengthen a little as the fruits ripen.
What is original about the strawberry plant is that it produces long stolons often called runners. These stolons “run” over the ground or hang down from pots. They produce a small strawberry plant at their tip. If it touches the ground, it will take root and form a new plant, then produce its own runners. This kind of multiplication—where one plant produces another by rooting where it touches the ground—is called layering.
Easy to Grow, Yet a Bit Special
Strawberries really aren’t difficult to grow, but their culture differs from other garden plants in certain ways.
Typically, strawberries are planted in the spring, although fall planting is certainly possible. (In that case, of course, the first harvest will take place in the 2nd year rather than the first.)
Helpful Hint: Always buy strawberries that are certified virus-free.
They are best grown in full sun, although partial shade is acceptable. Do note that plants grown in full sun do prefer some shade during the hottest hours of the day. And prefer a naturally cool location: strawberries don’t handle extreme heat well.
Strawberry plants prefer a well-drained, rich soil (the addition of compost can be useful) that is a bit on the acid side (a pH of 5.4 to 6.5).
If they are grown in pots, you can choose a classic flower pot or window box, but why not try them in a hanging basket from where, thanks to their runners, they dangle very attractively? Or, grow them in a “strawberry jar” (or strawberry pot), a pot with planting pockets at different levels that was specifically designed for growing strawberries?
Helpful Hint: In regions with mild climates (hardiness zones 9 and above), strawberries are planted not in the spring, but late in the fall. And not for a late spring/early summer harvest, but for a winter one! After all, this temperate climate fruiting plant grows best under cool conditions. So, strawberries are planted there in November (in the Northern Nemisphere at least) for a harvest from early winter to spring. It’s best to consider strawberries grown in the tropics as annuals and renew them each year, as they don’t cope well with hot tropical summers.
Be sure to remove all weeds before planting strawberries. That’s because, given their small size, strawberries are quickly dominated by more aggressive plants. It is better to wipe the slate clean before planting them than to have to spend the entire summer weeding!
Plant strawberries about 1 ft (30 cm) apart. It’s very important to replant the strawberries at the same level as they were in their original pot, with the crown just above the soil surface. If this crown is buried, rot can set in; if its roots are too exposed due to a shallow planting, it may dry out. This is really the only challenge in planting a plant that is otherwise grown much like any other.
After planting, apply a generous amount of mulch all around the plant. Not only does mulch help maintain a fairly constant level of moisture (strawberry plants hate dry soil), it suppresses weed seed germination. In addition, the fruit produced will lie on a bed of mulch rather than on the ground and will therefore be cleaner and less prone to insect or slug attack.
Good mulches for strawberries include compost, shredded leaves, forest mulch, ramial chipped wood, or even shredded newspaper. Avoid conifer bark mulches, however, such as cedar mulch, as they cause problems by mixing with the soil.
That the “straw” in the word strawberry has nothing to do with the straw mulch so often used in growing in them? They have been called strawberries for over 1,000 years, long before 19th century gardeners first started using straw mulch in raising them. Instead, the name apparently comes from “strewnberry,” as the berries are “strewn” (scattered, spread) on the ground around the base of the plant rather than borne well above it on sturdy branches as with other fruiting plants.
During the summer, maintenance is easy: just water as needed. In other words, when the soil feels dry to the touch, give the plants a good soak.
And weed them, of course.
It can also be useful to remove the runners or at least most of runners: this stimulates better flowering followed by more fruit! On the other hand, you need to let the runners grow if you want to create a ground cover effect or to allow the plant to trail attractively from a hanging basket.
At the end of the season, you can remove any dead leaves, but do leave the others in place. That’s because strawberry leaves are evergreen and the plants need them for a fast start-up come spring. However, it’s always best to cover the plants with a thick but light mulch, at least in any climate that has a winter worth mentioning. Chopped fall leaves may be the perfect winter mulch for many home gardeners, since they are free and very abundant in the fall. Farmers mostly use straw… or a winter protection blanket (frost cover). Other choices include clean hay, evergreen branches or pine needles (pine straw). A winter mulch of this sort will help protect the plants from the effects of winter weather.
Snow, too, offers an excellent protection for strawberry plants. And the more, the better. Do not shovel it off. That will do more harm than good. Let Mother Nature melt it away when the time is right!
Even potted strawberries generally survive the cold—in their pot!—if mulched well. For that purpose, though, it may be useful to place the pot away out of the way of cold, drying winds—for example, up against the foundation of a house or garage—and then cover it well with a thick blanket of dead leaves or other light mulch.
The following spring, remove enough of the winter mulch to expose the leaves to the sun, apply a handful of compost per plant . . . and you’re ready for another season!
Enemy Number 1
If humans find strawberries delicious, so do birds. Sadly, they have a habit of taking a chunk out of each fruit and then moving on to another.
The most logical method of keeping birds away from your crop is to spread netting over the plants, raising it above the fruit by at least 4 in (10 cm) using stakes or some other structure. Bird netting made specifically for this purpose is cheap and easy to find in garden centers. Alternatively, if you already have some other sort of netting on hand, you can recycle it for the same purpose.
Another way to protect your strawberries from birds is to scatter your plantings among other garden plants. You see, what often attracts birds is a large concentration of ripe, red strawberries over a small area. Thus a row or a bed of nothing but strawberries is inevitably attacked. But if you “hide” your strawberries by planting them here and there through your other plantings, the birds usually won’t be able to find them . . . and you’ll be on the way toward enjoying the delicious fruit of your labors!
Of course, concentrating your strawberries together is a monoculture . . . and a monoculture is never a good thing!
Enemy Number 2
Strawberries age badly. They tend to accumulate diseases (viruses, viroids and others) over time, diseases carried from plant to plant by different insects. These infestations are quite benign individually, but their cumulative effect exhausts the plant. It then produce less and less until it’s really no longer worth growing. Even the babies produced by the mother plant—and the babies produced by those babies!—will be infected, as viruses travel easily from plant to plant via their stolons.
Thus, after 3 or 4 years, strawberry production drops significantly. That’s the time to replace them with certified disease-free strawberries.
Note that these viruses do not survive in soil, only in plants and, temporarily, in insects. Once the diseased plant is taken out, the infestation is over. So, theoretically, you could simply replant your strawberry patch with fresh, disease-free strawberries and have another 3 or 4 years of great results. However, there are all sorts of other reasons to avoid such monocultures. It’s better to plant your new strawberry plants somewhere else or, in the case of strawberries grown in pots, to empty the pot, clean it well and fill it with fresh soil before planting strawberries again.
And Other Enemies. . .
Several insects and diseases can attack strawberries, but I find that it is quite easy to keep them under control with treatments that most gardeners already commonly use on other crops: sticky traps, floating row covers, insecticidal soap or neem sprays, etc. You can learn more about them here: Pest Management in Day-Neutral Strawberries.
Best of luck with your strawberries!