Strawberries are an ancient fruit that have been interacting for centuries with humankind. They have been around for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the Renaissance period that they began to be cultivated substantively in Europe. The word “strawberry” itself comes from an Old English word that might refer to the runners that the plant pushes out, which can appear like pieces of straw!
People around the world have eaten strawberries since ancient times, although originally as a wild fruit that was often tough or bitter. Domesticated versions of the strawberry appeared in Europe at least as far back as the Middle Ages.
Other native varieties of the strawberry plant were found in North America. While used by Native Americans and early European colonists, early Americans did not even cultivate the fruit as wild strawberry grew so abundantly in the wild! After initial European discovery and colonization of the Americas, the native American varieties of plants were taken back to Europe, where they were interbred with one another, producing the first modern strawberry plants.
Modern strawberry varieties are all descended from the intermixing between Chilean and Virginia strawberry plants.
Strawberry production really took off in the 19th Century in the United States, with railroads providing the quick shipment of fruit produced in warmer climates in the South to large cities like New York, where a dessert of strawberries and cream became widely appreciated as a delicacy. In recent years, most of the US strawberry crop has come from California.
In 2010, strawberries were the fifth highest-consumed fruit in the United States, with over 3 billion pounds produced in a year. Since 1970, per capita consumption of strawberries in the US has increased from 3 pounds per year to over 6 pounds. Growing strawberries is now big business!
Ready to try to grow your own? Let’s get started!
How to Buy Strawberries
How Strawberry Plants are Typically Sold
Most garden centers will sell strawberry plants in the spring. Depending on the region you live in and what particular varieties work best for your area, you might need to order online- especially for less popular types that garden centers may not carry.
Online or mail order wholesale growers will ship bare dormant roots in early spring at the appropriate time for your region. Plants are usually brown and undeveloped when they arrive as they have not started growing yet. Don’t worry if they look dead! They’re very hardy- just keep them cool and wet (though not constantly saturated or moist as they will rot) and plant them as soon as you can when the ground is workable.
Growth should start occurring once the weather starts to warm. If you buy a started plant in a pot rather than just the rootstock, make sure to look for a healthy vigorous plant without discolored leaves. Keep the soil in the pot moist until you get it in the ground.
Strawberry plants rarely come true to variety when grown from seed. In addition, seed-grown strawberries can be difficult and take longer to grow so it is best to buy rootstock or full plants.
Types of Strawberry Plants
There are three main types of strawberry plants: June-bearing, ever-bearing, and day neutral.
- June Bearing plants produce a large crop in mid-June to early July. This type is the most popular and common of the strawberry. It usually takes about four weeks between the first flowering and when fruit begins to appear
- Pro: they usually produce the largest yield per season of the three types
- Con: they only produce one crop per year in a short period of time so you have to be prepared to harvest it properly or else risk losing the entire year’s crop
- Popular Varieties include Annapolis, Jewel, and Honeoye
- Everbearing plants generally produce two crops: one in spring/early summer, and the other in late summer/early fall.
- Pro: Yields more than one crop per year .
- Con: Sometimes less fruit overall and of smaller size than June Bearing
- Popular Varieties include Ogallala and Alexandria
- Day Neutral plants produce fruit throughout the growing season
- Pro: Can start producing fruit in the first year; produce fruit throughout the growing season instead of only once or twice per year
- Con: Fruit is generally smaller than the other two types
- Popular Varieties include Tribute, Tristar, and Albion
The most popular variety of strawberry tends to be the June Bearing type. That said, everyone has their own preference! Try some of each and see what you think!
Now that you know about the history and types of strawberries, let’s discuss how they grow and how YOU can grow them!
How A Strawberry Plant Grows
Strawberries are a perennial–they grow back every year. Depending on the conditions the strawberry plant has to endure, its “useful lifespan” is generally 5-6 years under ideal circumstances.
However, you should keep in mind that strawberry plants usually have about 3 really productive years, after which fruit production begins slowing down, and the plant loses vigor. Eventually, resistance to disease can be reduced and the plant slowly fades until it dies of old age or other issues.
Growth Pattern & Runners
In the strawberry growing season, plants will usually sprout early in the season as the cold winter days begin to dwindle. Mother plants will begin to grow, and then offshoot plants known as “runners” are usually established later in warm weather during the summer and fall. As the season progresses, these runners form networks of strawberry plants that form their own root systems and colonize your garden.
Strawberry runners are typically 8 to 20 inches long depending on the variety. The runners are sort of like “scouts” for the plant, as they vigorously seek out other nearby places for the plant to multiply and expand into.
In fact, if you don’t manage these runners properly, your strawberry plants can quickly take over your yard. For illustration, a healthy June Bearing plant can produce up to 120 daughter plants in a single season! We will get into how to control this growth later on in the article.
Ok, so now let’s get into how to grow your own strawberry patch! Here’s how to get started:
Strawberry Plant Care & General Requirements
Choose a sunny, weed-free location with at least half a day of sunlight (preferably afternoon sun). Strawberries need full sunlight exposure to produce their full potential of fruit. Ideally, they should get 10 or more hours of sunlight per day. However, at a minimum they should get six hours of direct sunlight.
It is important that your garden bed is weed-free because invasive weeds can easily ruin strawberry beds. Strawberry plants grow low to the ground and can be quickly outcompeted by taller or aggressive weeds.
The best way to grow strawberries is in well-drained loam or sandy-loam soil which are rich in organic nutrients. If your soil is not well-drained or is heavy or clay, build raised beds with appropriate soil. A good mix for strawberry raised beds is ⅓ topsoil, ⅓ peat moss, and ⅓ compost.
Strawberries require a pH of 5.5 to 6.5, which is slightly acidic. You can test your soil’s pH with an inexpensive test kit often sold in home and garden centers or you get a more advanced soil test–we recommend sending away for the University of Delaware’s test. This will give you a breakdown of your soil nutrients and they’ll recommend any changes you should make to the soil. Be sure to take multiple small random samples of the area and put them together in a plastic bag so you get an average result of the garden soil as a whole.
If you have a pH of 7 or above in your soil, you can apply a sulfur based soil acidifier such as Espoma’s Soil Acidfier 3-6 months before planting season or even at the time of planting. Work it into the soil to a depth of 6-12 inches if you have not planted yet; otherwise you can sprinkle the acidifier on the surface and water it in.
After you plant your strawberries, firm the soil around the plant and water thoroughly. Moving forward, you should aim to make sure your plants receive an inch of water per week, which will allow them to perform at their best.
One good 25-30 minute soaking a week should be sufficient to ensure they are getting enough water in most soil types. In the spring you may receive this from Mother Nature, but come summer you may also want to use a rain gauge to check how much your plants are receiving and employ a soaker hose or drip system if necessary.
One important tip: be sure to water early in the day so the plant has an opportunity to fully dry before nightfall. This will help to prevent leaf diseases that thrive on moisture.
How to Plant Strawberries
When to Plant Strawberries
You should start strawberries as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring. A great time is typically in March or April which allows the plants to become well established before the hot weather arrives. Do not work the soil if it is wet–wait a few days until it dries. Snow or occasional frost will not hurt most new plants and spring rains will foster growth.
In general, strawberry plants should be spaced 12 to 18 inches apart. You should also place about 3-4 feet between rows to ensure proper spacing.
Proper Planting Depth
Dig holes in the soil that are large enough for the roots to go straight down. You do not want the roots to curl or have to cut them in order to fit in the hole. Make sure the soil covers the roots, but does not cover the crown. Planting strawberries with the crown too deep can cause rotting and disease problems.
Growing Strawberries & Proper Maintenance
Picking Off Blossoms
During the first growing season, remove flowers of June Bearing strawberries as soon as they appear. Removing the flowers promotes root and runner development thereby insuring a larger crop the following year.
For everbearing and day neutral strawberries, remove the flowers until the end of June and then after that date allow the flowers to remain to set fruit for a summer/fall harvest.
Thoroughly remove weeds prior to planting. You may want to consider using a weed preventative such as Preen right after planting your strawberry patch; this will eliminate the growth of annual weed seeds that can infest the garden. Applying PA26 Preen after planting your strawberries will not harm you plants. However, it only controls most annual weeds, not perennial weeds that are already existing and growing.
To control other weeds that grow in your strawberry patch, it may be necessary to hand pull or spot treat with herbicides throughout the growing season. If you do use chemicals, be careful because most chemical herbicides available on the market will kill your strawberry plants if it’s applied to the leaves.
Proper mulching with straw or hardwood mulch can also help with weed control. Make sure not to smother the strawberry plants. Often it is easiest to apply this mulch early in the season before weeds appear.
While strawberries can handle light frosts and colder weather, it does help to add a layer of mulch in early spring. If you are worried about a cold night (usually in the 20s) after planting your strawberries, you can use old blankets or sheets as protection for the night. Note that this technique is not usually necessary for established plants.
When the season winds down in the fall (usually around mid-November) before temperatures drop below 20 degrees, apply a straw mulch 3-4 inches deep over the rows. This mulch will protect the plants from cold temperatures that can kill the buds and injure roots and crowns. Remove the mulch in the spring when the strawberry leaves show yellow. You can even leave some of the mulch around the plants to keep the fruit from soil contact, suppress weeds, and to conserve soil moisture.
As the strawberry plants grow, make sure to relocate or remove extraneous runners, as letting them grow rampant will cause overcrowding. Thinning out runners also has the added benefit of allowing plants to focus energy on creating flowers and fruit rather than leaves and stems. You can transplant runners to expand your strawberry patch.
Choose an organic fertilizer such as Espoma Garden Tone for best results. This fertilizer provides a quick boost but also feeds slowly throughout the entire season without risk of burning injury. Apply at planting and throughout the season according to the label instructions.
Alternatively you can use ½ lb of an inorganic 10-10-10 fertilizer per 100 sq ft. 6 weeks after planting, but make sure not to use 10-10-10 in the summer when it is hot. Plants can burn under these circumstances.
Strawberries are susceptible to leaf diseases and fruit rot.
Common leaf diseases include powdery mildew, gray mold, leaf blight, leaf scorch, leaf spot and angular leaf spot. While these leaf diseases may not completely kill plants, they can be detrimental because plants will be more susceptible to stress/disease and will have less leaf material for photosynthesis and growth.
Some common ways to help avoid these diseases include:
- Watering early in the day to allow the leaves to dry out fully
- Planting the strawberries in full sun
- Maintaining proper spacing between plants to promote airflow between them
- Using straw mulch under the plants to help absorb moisture
- Preventative fungicides such as Fungonil
Avoid planting strawberries in soils where previous crops have included strawberries, raspberries, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant or peppers. These crops may harbor the soil pathogens verticillium, phytophthora and nematodes and may affect your new plants.
If you are using soil that contained those crops, try to amend heavily with peat moss and compost.
When to Harvest
Strawberries are generally ready to pick 30 days after they bloom. Fruit should be allowed to ripen on the plant and picked in the morning when cool. Pick ripe fruit and remove any diseased, overripe, or damaged fruit from the garden. Leave the green calyx (cap) attached to the fruit to increase storability.
Place uneaten ripe fruit in plastic bags or plastic or glass containers and refrigerate immediately. Do not wash fruit before storage but wash immediately before consumption. When picked cool and refrigerated, strawberries can often be stored up to a week. Freeze them for longer storage!
Strawberry Field Renovation
If a strawberry planting is to be fruited another year, it helps to renovate the field after harvest to rejuvenate the planting. The leaves should be removed using a lawn mower set high or a line trimmer- being careful not to damage the crown.
Rows should be narrowed to 12″ by digging out or rototilling and removing the oldest plants. It is important that the planting does not become too dense, since this will cause a decrease in fruit size and an increase in disease/insect pressure.
Fertilizer should be applied based on your soil test recommendations (or it never hurts to add some Garden Tone). It is best to use the same planting no more than three years to maintain optimal production and quality, however sometimes that can be extended to 4 or 5 years.
For more information on strawberry care click here for further details on strawberry care from a wonderful wholesale grower who we recommend.
Are you Ready to Plant?
So are you ready to establish a strawberry patch this season? Let us know how your garden turns out!