Strawberries, once available only in June, can now be found in stores almost all year. But these year-round berries are tasteless compared to the full, rich flavor of a homegrown berry. And with today’s everbearing and day-neutral strawberry varieties, in addition to the early summer classics, home gardeners can enjoy picking strawberries almost all summer.
Old fashioned, early-summer strawberries are large, sweet and abundant. They all ripen at once, so a good-size strawberry bed will yield enough fruit for plenty of fresh eating. Everbearing strawberries produce two smaller crops – one in June (earlier in the South) and the other in late summer. Day neutral berries are not sensitive to the length of the day so they produce some berries all summer, with the possible exception of the hottest times. If you are planting a day-neutral variety, consider putting in twice as many plants to ensure that you can harvest more than a handful of berries at a time.
Strawberries should be planted 12-18" apart, so the crown – the growth point where roots and shoots join – is level with the soil surface. The first year, you should pinch off any flowers so the plants will develop to their full potential. The second year you can start harvesting berries. The plants will send out “runners”, which are baby plants that will root and start new plants. Remove most of those runners or your bed will become a jumble of crowded plants, none of them doing very well. In general, day-neutral plants send fewer runners and are easier to manage.
Raised beds are ideal for strawberries, which benefit from good drainage and fluffy soil. Strawberries won’t tolerate weed competition and raised beds also help keep grasses from sneaking into the planting area. Strawberries are perennials that need rich soil with lots of organic matter and a slightly acidic pH (between 5.5 and 6.5). Work in compost, rotted manure and some peat moss at planting time. To minimize disease problems, avoid planting in areas where tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers, or melons have recently been grown.
Strawberries are vulnerable to a variety of pests and diseases – from mold, mildew and other fungi to root-eating grubs, hungry birds and chipmunks. Row covers and netting will keep out the birds. Buying certified disease-free plants helps reduce problems with viruses and fungal problems. Full sun and a mulch of shredded leaves or straw will help keep plants healthy and preserve the quality of the fruit.
Strawberries should produce about a quart of berries per plant per year.