Strawberries are an easy crop. They fit in a small garden and even can be grown in containers. A new planting starts producing quickly, compared to tree fruits like apples. Also, you don’t need a ladder to pick the fruit!
The grocery-store strawberries from California often remind me of apples. They are big, red on the outside and white on the inside, and have a nice crunch. They look gorgeous, but the taste isn’t so great. They have been bred for firmness to withstand mechanical harvesting and long-distance shipping. Personally, I’d rather grow delicious, fragile strawberries. Those not eaten in the garden just have to make it to the kitchen.
Strawberries need a sunny spot with good drainage. They will be productive for three to five years, so prepare the soil well. Dig the bed and get rid of weeds. Work in a couple of inches of well-rotted manure or compost and about 4 pounds of 5-10-10 fertilizer per 100 square feet.
Most strawberries produce in June. To can or freeze a big bunch at once, these are what you want. Others, called everbearing, produce a second crop later in the summer. The last ones, day-neutrals, bear anytime that the weather and cultural conditions are good.
Good June-bearing strawberries for the Northwest (in order of ripening) include Hood, Shuksan and Rainier. Hood fruit are excellent, but the plants are very susceptible to virus diseases. Everbearing strawberries have been around for quite awhile and the most common one is Quinault.
Day-neutrals are a newer development and the only strawberries I’ve grown in recent years. They provide enough berries for slicing onto cereal, ice cream or shortcake from June through October. My favorite, and the most commonly available, is called Tristar. Tillikum is delicious, but has tiny berries and Selva is a Californian - big, firm and lacking in flavor.
The least expensive way to buy strawberries is bare-rooted early in the spring. Later you will have to purchase individually potted plants. Either way, just make sure to go with certified, virus-free stock. A neighbor, who has strawberries, may offer you free runners. Resist the temptation. The plants will not produce well.
June-bearers are usually set about 20 inches apart within the row and rows are three to four feet apart. The baby runner plants are allowed to root in a matted row about 18 inches wide. Any that run into the path are directed back into the row or cut off.
Everbearing and day-neutral types don’t send out as many runners, so are set about 12 inches apart in rows and any runner plants are cut off. Plant them in a double row (a foot apart) with 1½-foot wide paths on each side.
Trim the plant roots to 5 inches, if needed, and place the plants so that the crown, where the leaves originate, is just above the soil surface. Water the plants in immediately and as often as needed to provide at least an inch of water per week.
Remove the blossoms the first year to allow for strong plant development. With everbearers and day-neutrals you can start leaving the blooms as soon as the plant has at least five big leaves.
Cut or mow June-bearers after harvest to renovate the bed. (Be careful not to damage the crowns.) Then till down the sides of the matted row to reduce it to 8 – 10 inches wide. Thin out old, weak or crowded plants in the row. The renovation stimulates healthy new growth, leading to a better harvest the following season.
Water and weed throughout the summer. If the plants are not growing vigorously, use 2 pounds of 5-10-10 fertilizer in late July. Clean up dead leaves from your everbearing and day-neutral plants in the winter.
Strawberries gradually get virus diseases and production drops off, even with
excellent cultural care. When this happens in a few years, plant a new bed in
a different spot.
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