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Growing Organic Strawberries

As the weather warms, I become anxious to plant. It is all I can do to wait until the danger of frost passes before planting the flowers and vegetables that bring the joyful color and wonderful fresh produce I have waited for all winter. I am reminded of sunny childhood days picking strawberries with my mom and sister. I thoroughly enjoyed eating more berries than I put in my box or basket. 

Did you know strawberries are not truly berries? True berries are simple fleshy fruits. Examples of true berries are blueberries, grapes and tomatoes. Strawberries, in the genus Fragaria, are an aggregate fruit. Aggregate fruits form from several ovaries, contained in one flower cluster, fusing together. When an individual flower ovary is pollinated, the receptacle tissue grows/swells up around the ovary, filling in voids between multiple ovaries, fusing them together into an aggregate. The ovaries, containing seeds, virtually disappear to the specks we see on the strawberry surface.

Now that you know what they are, let’s get planting. To get started, decide where to plant your strawberry plant: in pots, raised beds or somewhere in your garden landscape. Pots can be more practical if you have limited space or do not want an overabundance of fruit. Strawberries can even be planted in hanging baskets. In raised beds, your crop is more accessible and easier to weed. Strawberries need full sun, at least 6-8 hours per day. They grow in a variety of soils, preferring well-draining loam, rich in organic matter, with a pH of 6.0-6.5. Add some well-aged compost to meet this requirement. Pick a spot with good air circulation to avoid some disease issues. Avoid planting under or near trees or shade plants, as they will compete for nutrients. Higher ground could help minimize frost damage. Strawberries do not necessarily need to be planted in rows. They can be incorporated into the landscape. In many areas at Wellfield, they are planted as a ground cover.

Next, decide what variety of strawberry to plant. Strawberries fall into three different types

Plant dormant strawberry starting in April-May, or potted transplants in May-June. Make sure the center of the crown is at the soil line. Space June-bearers 24”-36” apart to make space for daughter plants. Other varieties can be planted 12”-24” apart. Remove flowers for 3-6 weeks so the plants put their energy into rooting instead of fruiting. Some sources recommend removing flowers for the entire first season for June-bearing plants.  

An organic approach to strawberry production focuses primarily on everything necessary to produce vigorous healthy plants: soil health and nutrients. Healthy plants produce the best quality fruit genes and are the best defense against pests and disease. Consider incorporating the strawberry planting as a part of a larger polyculture system. Plant diversity, in high density production polyculture systems, may decrease yields somewhat, but is a trade off for more resilient crop stands.

Keep plants well-watered and weeded until established. Strawberry plants generally require 1-2 inches of rainfall per week. For June-bearing varieties, rainfall or supplemental watering is more critical while fruit is developing & during renovation. Ever-bearing & day neutral varieties require consistent watering as they fruit throughout the season. When watering, be sure to water earlier in the day to help avoid disease issues.

So when do you start seeing those long-awaited berries? It usually takes about 4 weeks from flowering to berry harvest. Cover plants or turn on irrigation to protect the blooms if frost is expected while flowering. My strawberries at home are blooming prolifically right now, so I have about 4 weeks to impatiently wait for that yummy strawberry shortcake. 

When fruit starts to ripen, check plants daily. Berries ripen quickly in warmer weather. Harvest at least every 3-4 days. Picking when fruit is dry and placing them immediately into the refrigerator extends storage life. I would leave the green cap, or calyx, intact. Rotting fruit encourages disease & insect problems, so keep up with harvesting.

Are you finished once harvesting is done? Not quite. There are several important tasks to complete. Your plot may need renovation, fertilization and a haircut, for starters. After harvest, but before August 1st, plants should be mowed at a high setting and diseased foliage removed. Be careful not to damage the crown.  

Plants can be fertilized at this time. Compost and an appropriate organic fertilizer should be added according to the timing and rates suggested in our article links. Continue to weed and provide adequate irrigation, if needed. Day neutral and ever-bearing plants may need a boost mid-season. Compost or blood meal can be placed beside plants to offer additional nitrogen. 

Thinning plants can also be done at this time to improve air flow. As runners appear, especially with June-bearing varieties, transplant daughter plants to where you want them, pressing runners gently into the soil. Prune and discard or share any unwanted plantlets.

During the second year and beyond, your Fragaria plot can be renovated. As your plantings age, older plants are removed to make room for younger, more prolific plants. Renovation also helps disrupt the life cycle of diseases & insects.  Remove plants older than three years to maintain the health, vigor & productivity of your plot. 

Plants will go dormant when temperatures drop below 40 degrees in late fall. Four to six inches of clean straw should be used to cover plants before the ground freezes. This protects plants from the extreme cold we sometimes experience in our region. When early spring, new growth appears, the straw can be removed. I keep straw beside and under plants to help retain moisture and discourage weeds.

As our slow spring warm up creeps on, I wait and dream about those sweet, juicy strawberries. How about you?

Amy Myers, Lead Horticulturalist

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