Side Bar: U-Pick Strawberries and Growing Tips
Strawberries – everyone’s favorite fruit – are welcome heralds of summer, and they are so easy to grow in a garden, flower bed, or any patch of sandy soil – even in a patio pot.
Strawberry plants are inexpensive and available in most local nurseries and mail-order garden catalogs. Any gardener will have success growing the fruit if she follows a few simple rules.
Why grow your own? Nothing is more pleasant than getting up early on a clear sunny morning, wandering outside while a mockingbird sings, and finding five or six dewy, sparkling red berries with which to decorate your morning bowl of cereal. The flavor of fresh berries is rich, pure and crisp.
Several years ago when my U-Pick berry patch in Johnson County, Missouri, was at its height of popularity, good store-bought commercial berries were hard to find. The overly large cone-shaped Driscoll variety, widely available at most grocery stores, lacked flavor and had a crunchy texture making it difficult to believe that these were even an edible food. Since then, producers have come a long way in improving the commercial strawberry, and although still overly firm (necessary for successful shipping), the flavor has improved. However, outstanding flavor, convenience, cost, quality and stellar health benefits are all good reasons for cultivating your own patch, large or small.
I have grown berries in my yard for many years, experimenting with several different cultivars. But I keep coming back to the same old variety – Surecrop. It is the first berry type I grew more than 20 years ago and is in my garden this spring. It’s the variety that I regularly provide for the participants in the local strawberry-growing classes that I teach.
Surecrop is foolproof to grow and has been around for a long time. These plants are hardy, prolific and dependable. In fact, Surecrop’s prolific runners sometimes become their own brand of “weed,” producing more volunteer runner plants than there is space to accommodate.
Berry plants send out many slender string-like daughter runners, which will root and produce the next year. Once started, your bed will continually enlarge itself, without further financial output by you.
Choosing a good spot
Grow plants in a sunny area unaffected by tree roots or tree shade. Berry plants do best in loose soil with added compost or sand. Make sure the chosen spot has good drainage; plants sitting in soggy soil will die a slow death.
New plants and planting
I order my berries from www.InBerry.com and receive them in a leafless dormant state, with plenty of plump roots; dampened, bagged and in perfect condition, always with 2 or 3 extra plants added in as a bonus per bundle of 25.
Keep new plants in the refrigerator or a cold garage until you can work the soil outdoors.
With scissors, clip off broken, stray or scraggly roots and leaves. Then immerse the new plants in a bucket of water for 15 minutes or so before setting them in the ground. Soaking gives them a helpful dose of moisture and protects them from the drying effects of sun, wind and handling.
If you intend to set out thousands of plants, there is specialized machinery available for this purpose. But for the average backyard planting, you will be doing the work by hand on bended knee.
Prepare the area by discing, plowing, tilling – preferably the fall before your planting date. Make sure all tough grass, invasive clover and weeds in general are completely torn out and gone, and that the soil is soft and rock- and debris-free.
Mark out straight rows; then with a hoe or trowel, scoop shallow depressions at 12- to 18-inch intervals. After spreading out the plant’s root system to resemble a spider, place it carefully in the shallow hole. Completely cover the roots with soil, and then tamp the soil down firmly to eliminate air pockets and ensure good root-soil contact.
Above the plant roots is a small bump, or “crown.” Don’t cover the crown with soil, or situate it too high above the soil level. The crown is the new “plant,” and within days of being put in its place, it will send out fresh new emerald-green leaves.
Care of new plants
Water your new plants weekly until well-established. Wait for sunny days to do their magic, and you’ll soon have a row of lush, healthy plants. Don’t fertilize at this point; the new plants are tender and can burn.
In a few weeks, white blossoms appear, often clustered together on one or two long stems. Check plants frequently, and with scissors snip off these stems at ground level. Clipping off the first-year blossoms allows the plant to channel all its energy into establishing a root system, rather than trying to produce and ripen berries.
Keep the bed watered and weeded, as you would any other garden area. The last item on your task list takes place in early winter; once the ground is frozen, mulch the plants lightly with loose straw or other available material. The mulch protects the plants from the soil’s pitching and heaving during the alternate cold and warm spells that inevitably occur between fall and spring.
Second year … harvest
In the spring, check for the first new growth, then uncover the rows, carefully raking the mulch into pathways. The mulch protects the plants and ripe berries from muddy splashes caused by hard rains, and helps stop disease particles from splattering the leaves. Straw mulch also makes a pleasant path on which to walk when the surrounding ground is muddy.
Buds appear, only this time they are not clipped off. The buds are allowed to bloom, age and drop their petals; and then, from the tight green-golden flower center, a berry forms. Warm, dry days are good for berry plants and for ripening the crop. Excess rain, heat and high humidity can cause the bright red fruit to turn gray and soggy or to succumb to mold – a grayish-white fuzzy coating that covers and shrivels the berry. Too much moisture also makes large berries with diluted flavor.
Check your patch every day, keeping ripe berries picked to avoid waste. Each plant should produce about 2 quarts of berries. Pick the fruit on cool, dry days; place in shallow containers to avoid squashing. Homegrown berries are not as crisp as commercially shipped berries. Most varieties are fairly firm, but they will not stand up well under excess weight. Also, it is natural for overall berry size to gradually diminish as the season progresses. The late season smallest berries have the most intense flavor, however.
Store berries unwashed in the refrigerator or other cool area. When ready to use, wash, drain and shuck (remove stem and leaves). Shucking before washing causes a lot of juice to leak out and be wasted.
Using your berries
Unfortunately, fresh homegrown berries are available for only a few short glorious weeks, usually from mid- to late May until early to mid-June. However, you can enjoy homegrown strawberries all year round if you preserve them. Freeze the best berries; make jewel-toned jams or dry rolls of nutritious fruit leather from the imperfect ones.
Freezing: Wash, shuck, slice and mix cut berries with sugar; the more sugar used, the better the keeping quality. However, the nutrition content will be somewhat compromised. Frozen berries will keep perfectly for 6 months, and although they are edible after that amount of time, they will begin to lose quality and flavor. Freeze berries in plastic storage containers; such containers are leakproof and stack well in the freezer.
To freeze individually, lay berries in a single layer on cookie sheets. Once frozen, store in freezer containers.
Jam: Follow the directions on the fruit pectin packages for canned or freezer jam.
Leather: Purée berries and add a bit of sugar. Pour liquid onto food dryer racks lined with special fruit roll-up trays. Dry for about nine hours until firm but not brittle. Or, spread puréed berries onto sprayed cookie sheets and dry in low-heat oven overnight.
Second year … care and renovation
After the harvest, dry your tears and then get out the push mower, raising the blade to its highest level. Ruthlessly mow off old plants, leaves, rotted berries and all. It’s difficult to do, but it is advantageous to your patch. It rids the patch of old and possibly diseased plant material.
Surecrop plants send out an overabundance of runners (I counted 17 on one busy and prolific mother plant one year!), which means your patch could actually crowd itself out by overpopulation quite quickly. Move some of the runners (next year’s fruiting plants) back into the original row, and remove any others – especially if runners venture out any time after August. Even though a jungle-like green mat of thriving plants looks like a successful achievement, growing strawberries in this manner is actually detrimental to good berry production. The largest, sweetest berries are those growing along the sunny outer edges of the row. Several narrow rows are more productive than a large matted row.
Once the patch is mowed, apply a light 10-10-10 or 12-12-12 fertilizer. Strawberries grow well on most soils and regular fertilizing really isn’t necessary. One year we applied too much well-rotted manure to our patch. The following May the foliage grew so thick that we had to use the weed trimmer to lop the plants down to allow air and sunlight to reach the heavily shaded fruits. The fruit was not ripening but molding.
Keep the patch weeded, watered, and then, once again, when the ground has frozen hard (usually in January in our area), apply fresh straw mulch. The patch is put to bed, but in a few more months – my mouth is already watering thinking about it – the sun will warm the ground, and tiny green leaves will poke up, bursting with energy. Plants bloom, fruit ripens and once again, you have fresh strawberry shortcake to enjoy.
Biz Reynolds lives on a beef farm in Missouri, worked at Powell Gardens botanical gardens for 13 years and ran her own U-Pick strawberry farm for several years. She currently has a backyard patch of Surecrop berries, since a person should never be without strawberries.