Strawberries are small plants that offer us so much wonderful fruit. So, why don’t more people try to grow them in their gardens? Actually, there are many berry-producing shrubs and bushes we can grow in our gardens: blackberry, raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries, currants and elderberry. However, in my opinion, strawberries are truly the easiest to start with. Though you might have to share a few with the birds and rabbits.
Strawberries are decorative plants in addition to providing fruit for our consumption. These plants are low growing and can serve as ground cover or even as border edging. They have tiny, white flowers in the spring and their green foliage turns red in the fall, providing visual interest in the garden. During the summer, the plants will form runners that will eventually form new little plantlets. Each little white flower will eventually become a strawberry and since most strawberry plants are self-fertile, you only need one for fruit to develop.
There is a general consensus that there are three main types of strawberry plants: summer-fruiting (June-bearer), everbearing, and day-neutral. A fourth type, Alpine is often mentioned as growing mainly in Europe, but is available here for home growers. Alpine strawberries produce smaller, but tasty fruits. Here in our zone 7A gardens, the June or summer-fruiting strawberries produce all their fruit in a 2-3 week period. The so-called everbearing types produce briefly in summer then stop, they then resume production with the majority of their fruit produced in the fall. This type grows best where the weather is usually mild in the fall. The day-neutral strawberries produce fruits from midsummer to fall. If you are a beginning strawberry gardener, the summer-fruiting or June-bearer varieties will be the most rewarding start.
Within the June-bearer type, some cultivar names to look for include Allstar, Cavenish and Sparkle. In the day-neutral types, look for the cultivars Seascape or Tristar. If you seek an everbearing type that does well here in the northeast, try Ozark Beauty. Though they may be more difficult to find, either Alexandria or Mignonette Alpine strawberry plants are good examples of their type.
Here are some necessary planting and care tips for first time berry gardeners. Strawberries are best planted in loose, fertile soil, high in organic additives and has good drainage. Chose a sunny, warm site since this will produce the most flavorful fruits. Strawberry plants like a pH of 5.5 to 6.5. It is best to plant young strawberry plants early in the spring before the heat and humidity of the summer begins. This will allow them time to develop sweet fruit.
Using an overhead sprinkler may promote various fungal diseases such as gray mold or powdery mildew and so should be avoided if possible. Regular watering is necessary to keep the plants moist, but they do not like soggy soil. Set the plants so that the upper part of the crown (the space between the roots and the leaves), is slightly above or level with the ground but not below the level of soil. Since strawberries are hungry consumers of nutrients, make sure to keep the area as weed-free as possible. A fertilizer added once or twice during the summer can keep your plants thriving and healthy and produce those sweet, luscious fruits. If slugs or snails appear, you can spread diatomaceous earth around the plants as it is a non-pesticide alternative. Keeping the plants mulched also helps protect the plants from irregular temperatures and moisture levels.
If your space is limited, you can plant strawberries in containers, though I have found strawberry plants do better and produce more when planted in the ground. A good tip: if growing in pots, remove the runners that develop in the first season so that all the energy is directed to the fruits.
If you, as many gardeners, are concerned about the heavy use of pesticides and herbicides (weed killers) sprayed on commercially available strawberries, then why not try growing your own. Enjoy your “sweet” garden.
Josephine Borut is currently on the board of directors of the Long Island Horticultural Society and is a past board member of the Long Island Rose Society. She is a current member of The American Rose Society, The Herb Society and The Long Island Horticultural Society. The Horticultural Society meets on Sunday afternoon with doors opening 1:30 p.m. at the conference center of Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay. The next meeting is June 26. The speaker is Holly Gordon and her topic is Blooms and Beyond. The organization does not meet in July or August. Meetings will resume on Sept. 18 with Rick Mikula and his topic Beautiful Butterflies. For more information, go to www.lihort.org.