Plant now to reap 'strawberry fields forever'

“Strawberries are the angels of the earth, innocent and sweet, with leafy green wings reaching heavenward.”

— Jasmine Heiler, blogger, Food.com

 

Jasmine Heiler is certainly not the first to proclaim such lofty enthusiasm for strawberries. In fact, Asian cultures consider the strawberry the “queen of fruits” because it’s packed with healthful vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Victorians equated strawberries with “absolute perfection” and “perfect goodness.” Undoubtedly, American author William Allen Butler had similar views in mind when he wrote in the 1850s, “Doubtless god could have made a better berry (than the strawberry), but doubtless god never did.”

I can’t imagine my own epicurean world without strawberries (although my allergic friends say they manage just fine).

Yet, however “innocent and sweet” they’ve been called, strawberries do have a deliciously intriguing history. They were first cultivated in Europe in the 1300s, but the native woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) was not very hardy. It was only after a stronger hybrid, F. virginiana, was developed in America during the 1600s that strawberries became more popular as a food crop. Then in 1764, a French spy stole the Chilean strawberry, F. chiloensis, which was not only hardy but had huge fruit. By accident, the pilfered species was crossed with the Virginia strawberry and — viola! — we have the ancestors of today’s beloved garden-variety strawberries.

February and March is the perfect time to plant strawberries in our area. If your soil bed is workable, cool-weather loving strawberries will thrive if planted in sunny sites with well-draining, slightly acidic soil (pH 5.5-6.0). By planting a combination of June-bearer, everbearer and day-neutral varieties, we can enjoy a bountiful harvest of strawberries practically year round.

June-bearers produce one summer crop of large strawberries, thus making particularly good fruit for preserves and freezing. Although providing smaller fruit in less quantity, the everbearer and day-neutral plants produce additional crops. Everbearers, including the tiny yet tasty Alpine strawberry, develop berries in the summer and fall, whereas day-neutrals produce throughout the growing season except when temperatures rise above 90 degrees. Keep in mind, however, that all varieties produce minimal fruit the first year they are planted.

Planting strawberries is accomplished by using either the matted-row or hill system. Matted rows require less maintenance because runners produced from the strawberry plants are allowed to grow and take root. Using the hill system requires gardeners to cut off “daughter” plants before they root; however, tidier rows tend to breed fewer insects and diseases and produce more strawberries. Everbearer and day-neutral varieties are best planted in hills because they don’t develop many runners and won’t form a mat. June-bearers can also be planted in hills, although I grow them in mats in my raised beds, as well as in containers.

Regardless of the planting system used, all strawberries will perform better in loamy soil, preferably prepared last fall with lots of organic matter (or amend now and add calcium nitrate at 2 pounds per 100 square feet to enhance decomposition). I added compost to my garden beds last November and covered them with a thick layer of shredded maple leaves; now I’ll turn under the leaves within the top 6 inches of soil with calcium nitrate to further break down the leaves.

Avoid growing strawberries where other plants in the nightshade family have grown for the past three years, including peppers, potatoes, eggplant and tomatoes. The OSU Extension Service recommends planting strawberries in holes deep enough to accommodate their roots without bending, making sure that the plant’s crown is level to the soil line and the top root is just below the soil surface. Cover the roots with soil, pressing firmly to remove air pockets, then water with 1 cup of diluted high-phosphorous fertilizer to reduce transplant shock. Use a balanced fertilizer two weeks after transplanting, and then once a month for two months thereafter.

With proper care, healthy strawberry plants are productive for 3 to 4 years. Start a new patch during the last year of production, and then enjoy the fruits of your labor from, as John Lennon famously sang, “strawberry fields forever.”

I discuss more about caring for strawberries on my blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.

Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.

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