Straw polls verify that America’s favorite berry is—appropriately enough—the strawberry. However, gardeners learning how to grow these fruits must choose between everbearing, day-neutral, or June-bearing types (this last one is often called spring-bearing in the South).
Because strawberries don’t come true from seed, most plants are grown from dormant, bare-root transplants purchased in early spring in the North or in autumn in areas where frost is rare. The only strawberries commonly raised from seed are alpine or wild types, or open-pollinated cultivars such as ‘Fresca’.
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BEFORE YOU BEGIN
Keep in mind that, when properly cultivated, June-bearing (aka spring-bearing) strawberries won’t bear during their first year in the North and require about 6 months to do so when planted in autumn in the South.
STEP 1: Choose a strawberry type.
June-bearing strawberries produce the largest fruits in the largest amounts of any strawberry type during a 3-week period in early summer in the North, in spring in the South. They’re the best choice for gardeners who wish to freeze or otherwise preserve the berries.
Everbearers make small crops during summer and a heavier one in autumn. Day-neutral strawberries bloom and bear as long as the temperature remains between 35 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. These two types are recommended for those who want to harvest smaller amounts of berries to eat fresh.
STEP 2: Set a planting date.
Northern gardeners should plan to set out dormant transplants about a month to 6 weeks before their last frost—usually in April or May. However, they should wait until after the last frost to set out transplants or seedlings that are already growing in pots.
Southern gardeners planning to raise strawberry plants over winter for a spring harvest should choose June bearers (aka spring bearers), planting them between mid-September and early November. They can be plowed or tilled under after their spring crop, because strawberries don’t deal well with the South’s intense midsummer heat.
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STEP 3: Sow strawberry seeds.
Sow strawberry seeds indoors 4 to 5 months before your last frost date. After filling a small pot with damp, sterile seed-starting mix, press the seeds into the surface of that mix without covering them.
Place the pot inside a plastic bag, zip the bag shut, and place it inside your refrigerator for 1 month. Afterwards, position it under a grow light or on a sunny windowsill at a temperature between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The seeds should sprout within 1 to 6 weeks. When the seedlings have three leaves, give each one its own 3-inch pot filled with potting mix.
STEP 4: Prepare a garden bed.
Choose a location with a soil pH between 5.5 and 6.8, which receives at least 6 hours of sun per day, preferably 10, and in which nightshade crops (tomatoes, potatoes, etc.) haven’t grown recently. If your soil is heavy clay and you can’t construct a raised bed, sprinkle 4 inches of compost over the surface of the ground and till it in.
Give sandier soils 1 inch of compost to help them retain moisture. Mix an organic berry fertilizer, such as 4-3-4, into the top 5 inches of either soil, using 10 pounds for every 100 square feet of bed.
STEP 5: Plant strawberries in a bed.
Southern gardeners setting out strawberries in autumn should lay black plastic mulch over their soil to help keep it warm over winter, and insert the plants through holes in that plastic. Such mulch can suppress weeds for Northern gardeners too.
Use a trowel to place dormant transplants or seedlings 18 inches apart for June bearers, which make many runners, and 6 to 10 inches apart for other types that don’t, with 3 feet of space between rows. Set each transplant deeply enough that the top of its roots are covered, while the upper half of its crown protrudes above the ground.
STEP 6: Plant strawberries in containers or hanging planters.
Avoid dark-colored containers, since they retain too much heat, and make sure your pots are at least 4 to 6 inches deep with drainage holes. Plant three everbearing or day-neutral plants per square foot of space, or four smaller alpine or wild ones. To concentrate the plants’ energy on producing fruit, remove any runners that form.
Water those pots whenever the soil is dry 1 inch beneath the surface and feed the strawberries every two weeks with liquid plant food, following the directions on the label. In cold climates, move the containers into an unheated outbuilding during winter.
STEP 7: Care for your transplants.
Water the transplants well and ensure that they continue to receive at least 1 inch of water per week. To avoid fungal diseases, use a soaker hose that does not spray water onto the foliage. If you haven’t applied plastic mulch, cover the ground between plants with straw or shredded leaves to suppress weeds.
Northern gardeners should pinch off any flowers that appear on June-bearing plants during their first year and any blooms that appear before June on everbearing or day-neutral plants. Two months after setting out the plants, apply more berry fertilizer at half the previous strength.
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STEP 8: Prune strawberries.
In midsummer, Northern gardeners should thin the runners on June-bearing strawberries to leave only 3 runners per plant, 10 inches apart from each other. Before the beginning of August, mow off June-bearing plants to a height of 1 inch above their crowns, raking away the chopped foliage and disposing of it elsewhere. This helps eliminate disease and provide a strong winter canopy, as the plants should leaf out again within a couple of weeks or so.
STEP 9: Protect and pick your strawberries.
In late autumn or early winter, when daytime temperatures remain below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, blanket the plants with 4 inches of straw. In mid-spring, rake the straw off and use it to mulch the plants. If frost threatens after they begin to bloom, pile the straw on top of the plants again or place row cover over them until the threat passes.
When fruits form, cover the plants with bird netting to keep the berries safe from eager beaks. Pick ripened berries every 3 days, and refrigerate them at once. Don’t wash them until just before you intend to eat or preserve them.
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In the plants’ second year, wait until after they bear their crop to fertilize them, as feeding too early can promote foliage growth at the expense of berries. Although strawberries are perennial in most zones, it’s a good idea to plant a new bed in a different location every 3 to 4 years. Once the new one begins bearing, you can plow or till under the old one.
Yes, strawberries can be easy. If you follow the above simple rules for transplants, or “sow a fine stream” of seeds, you will soon be able to “feed on strawberries, sugar, and cream.”