David James planted a new strawberry bed in his Grants Pass garden this month using silver mulch, which is supposed to keep soil temperatures lower in summer by reflecting sunlight away. It is thought to repel insects, as well, he said.

Deep-red and sweet

June is strawberry month in the Rogue Valley. The plants awake from their winter's hibernation in early spring, and by late May, the crowns of the plants have new berries and flowers, all waiting for some sunshine to turn the fruit deep-red and sweet.

Like with tomatoes, the difference between store-bought strawberries and those growing in your garden is quite apparent. Lucky for us gardeners, strawberries are fairly easy to grow.

They prefer good drainage, an acid soil, protection from deer and as much sun as possible. Wet weather in June plays havoc with the strawberry bed. Ripening fruit turn a fuzzy gray as botrytis spores, a fungal disease, come to life on the fruit and new leaves. Leaf spot, another fungus, shows up, as well, if spring weather turns cool and wet.

Avoid overhead sprinkling of strawberries, as wetting the foliage, especially at night, duplicates spring rain and promotes fungus problems. Drip systems, soaker hoses in particular, operating at low pressure (just a trickle), allow gardeners to water deeply without wetting the foliage.

There are three different types of strawberries, each categorized by its harvest season.

June bearers, as the name suggests, produce their crop all at once in June. If you are going to use the berries to freeze or make jam, June bearers are an excellent choice. The harvest occurs all at once, the berries are processed and it's over for another year.

Everbearers produce an extended harvest in late spring, along with a light harvest in early fall when daylight hours have decreased and summer temperatures have declined. They're been a good choice for table use.

Day neutral varieties are fairly new to the strawberry world. The ideal home-garden strawberry, it produces fruit from June all the way through to mid-October.

I learned the secret of its success a few years ago while speaking with retired University of California plant breeder Howard Bowen, who helped to develop the day-neutral variety named Fern. The genes of a small New England variety which had exceptional flavor were combined with that of a large California commercial variety, and seven generations later, the flavor was transferred to the West Coast variety, producing large fruit which had the flavor of the small New England berry. The highlight, said Bowen, "was a plant which produced a continual crop from summer through fall."

The only drawback to day-neutral strawberries is that their heavy production schedule literally burns out the plant fairly quickly, reducing production as a bed ages. As a result, it is best to replant day-neutral varieties every three years. The better of the day-neutral varieties include Tri-star, Fern, Seascape and an up-and-coming variety called Albion, which will easily be No. 1 in popularity within a couple years.

Strawberries require regular watering and weeding. Light cultivation with a scuffle hoe when weeds are small is recommended. Watering day-neutral varieties regularly through the summer is critical, especially during hot weather. Take care the plants don't dry out. Applying a light straw mulch around the plants through July and August will reduce soil temperature and help maintain an even moisture level.

Watering twice per week with a drip system through the summer should provide adequate moisture for established plants. During hot periods when the plants are producing, more frequent watering can be used to help maintain fruit size and help the plants get through the heat wave.

Fertilize the strawberry beds in July and again in late August or early September to help develop the plant crowns going into fall and winter months. Keep fertilizer off foliage to avoid burning the leaves.

It isn't surprising to discover that other critters like strawberries as much as we do. A favorite of slugs and snails, the mollusk pests are best baited or hand picked during an evening search-and-destroy mission with a flashlight. They are nocturnal pests, only coming out to feed at night. Birds can be troublesome, as well, and are best controlled by placing netting over the berry plants during harvest season.

The insect pest that seems to bother growers the most is the spittlebug, the nymph form of a froghopper and a relative of the leafhopper, which appears as a small frothy splotch on the fruit and foliage. Spittle bugs for the most part do little damage and leave the plants once they emerge as adults. They can be pretty easily washed off the leaves and berries with a spray of water.

In late summer or early fall, cut back your strawberry plants to remove the old leaves. Some growers set their mower at its highest setting and mow right over the plants. It's important to remove the leaves without damaging the crowns. This renovation process will help develop a new canopy of leaves with fewer inherited disease problems.

David James has been writing gardening stories in Southern Oregon for 35 years. Contact him at

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