Strawberries for small spaces
Have a tiny garden? Tom Ferguson suggests building a strawberry pyramid from three 12-inch-tall, square boxes (redwood or cedar), each 1 foot smaller than the other.
So, if the bottom one is a 5-foot square, make the middle one a 4-foot square, and the top box a 3-foot square. Screen the bottom of the larger square in hardware cloth to keep out gophers. Then, fill that square with potting soil and set the 4-foot square in the center, on top of the potting soil. Fill the 4-foot square with potting soil and do the same thing with the 3-foot square.
Kirk Larson is the strawberry specialist at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine. According to Larson, most strawberry varieties sold in nurseries have been around for about 40 years. In that time, strawberry breeders have produced some wonderful new varieties that are big, beautiful and delicious.
Larson is now excited about a short-day variety called ‘Benecia,’ which came onto the commercial market in 2010. It will probably reach grocery stores this year and, Larson hopes, be sold in nurseries sometime soon. If you don’t find it, ask your local nursery to order ‘Benecia’ strawberries for next winter.
Who doesn’t love strawberries? These little red jewels explode with intense, sweet, richness. There’s nothing like a homegrown strawberry. On a warm spring afternoon, pluck a soft, red berry from its plant and pop it into your mouth. As the saying goes, betcha can’t eat just one!
Strawberries are not hard to grow, but the more you know, the more success you’ll have. Some nurseries get their first delivery of bare-root strawberries in October and a second in early January. Others take delivery only in January. Shop now for the widest selection of varieties. Bundles of bare-root strawberries are by far the best value.
Edible strawberries fall into some basic categories:
June-bearing strawberries (also called “short day”) flower in the short days of spring. Their fruits ripen over just two to three weeks around June. Grow June bearers if, like the commercial growers, your goal is to harvest all at once. ‘Chandler’ and ‘Sequoia’ are two old standby June bearers. Both make delicious sweet fruits.
Ever-bearing strawberries (also called “day neutral”) flower and set fruit from about July to September, regardless of the day length. Flowing and fruit ripening happen at a slower pace and over a longer time, ensuring a steady supply of berries for morning cereal and daily smoothies. ‘Seascape’ has large, flavorful fruit. ‘Tristan’ has deep magenta pink flowers that make it ornamental as well as edible.
Alpine strawberries are a favorite of Tom Ferguson, customer service representative at Walter Anderson Nursery. These fraises des boi closely resemble native European woodland strawberries with their tiny flowers and equally tiny red or yellow berries that pack a mighty flavor.
Unlike the hybrids, Alpine strawberries don’t make runners. Buy them as starts or start them from seed instead. Red-fruited ‘Mignoette’ is a classic, as is ‘Alpine Yellow,’ named for the color of its fruit.
Can’t decide? Take a cue from Tom Fetch, sales manager for LE Cook, who supplies strawberry plants to nurseries. Fetch is a self-described “equal-opportunity strawberry muncher … whichever strawberry I have in my hand at the moment is my favorite!”
Grow several varieties for a longer harvest. Do a taste test to decide which one you like best.
How to grow
Strawberries require full sun, rich soil and moisture whether in the ground or in a container, a planter or a raised bed.
Soak bare-root strawberries in water for an hour or two before planting.
In the ground, plan for strawberries to be 12 inches apart, with 18 inches between rows.
Amend native soil with high-quality organic compost, 50/50 with well-draining soil, 60/40 with clay soils.
Strawberries in containers or raised beds can grow much closer together. Use high-quality, organic potting soil. While ceramic strawberry pots are cute, you’ll have far more success with half whiskey barrels or other large containers.
In all cases, add worm castings and granular organic fertilizer high in phosphorus (such as 3:12:12 or 4:7:4) to the soil. Follow label directions. Saturate soil before planting.
Plant strawberries so roots are completely covered and the crown (where the roots meet the leaves) sits slightly above the soil surface to avoid chances of the crown rotting.
Keep soil damp (not wet). Drip irrigation is also best. Mulch with straw, or, for a quicker harvest, spread clear plastic over the soil to heat it up quickly. A band of copper tape around a raised bed or container keeps slugs and snails at bay. Iron phosphate slug and snail bait works, too, and there is a formulation that also targets earwigs and pill bugs.
Pluck off strawberry flowers for the first month or two after planting. This forces the plants’ energy into the leaves and roots needed to support a healthy crop.
Harvest strawberries when the fruits are slightly soft and deep red (except for yellow alpine strawberries).
Strawberries tend to produce best their first year or two, then taper off. Since commercial growers focus on production, they plant anew every year.
Home gardeners have the luxury of establishing perennial strawberry patches. Here’s how: Clip all runners off in year one. In year two, allow some runners to root. In year three, discard the original mother plants and allow more new runners to root. Keep this rotation going to always have productive 1- and 2-year-old plants.
Then, all you have to do is to enjoy!
January to-do list
•Watch for bare-root plants to arrive at the nursery: peaches, pears, apples, strawberries, onions, artichokes and more.
Choose low-chill varieties of fruiting trees and shrubs. Every deciduous fruit tree, vine or shrub should be labeled according to its chill hours. The chill hour is roughly the nighttime hour below 40 degrees. Unless you live in the mountains, you’ll do best with plants that require no more than 400 chill hours. Mountain areas have more chill hours.
•Pruning and spraying season is drawing to a close, especially along the coast. If you haven’t already done so, prune, then spray dormant fruit trees and vines such as apricot, peach, apple and grape.
•Dealing with cold damage? My garden has frozen most nights since Thanksgiving. As sad and shriveled as some plants look, I won’t trim them until February when I can be certain that freezing nights are past. Inland and in the mountains, freezes can continue into March or April. In the meantime, damaged leaves and stems protect the inner parts of the plants from freezing, too.
• This is a great time to renew the mulch in your garden. Succulents prefer gravel or decomposed granite mulch, but non-succulent plants do best with an organic mulch. Spread mulch 3 inches thick, over drip irrigation, not beneath it.
• Aloes are the flowers of winter here in San Diego. While there are spring and summer flowering aloes, the winter bloomers are the most spectacular. Shop for them now, while their coral colored candelabras are in full glory.
• Continue to plant California natives and other low-water, Mediterranean climate beauties. Native lemonade berry, Rhus integrifolia, makes a lovely screen that attracts birds to the garden. Desert willow Chilopsis linearis, which is dormant now, grows as a large shrub or small tree. In late summer, it is covered in large, orchid-shaped flowers in shades of magenta, blush pink and rose.
• It may be cold now, but spring — and warm weather vegetables — is just around the corner. Plan now to plan later. If you are interested in learning to start vegetables, fruits and herbs from seed, attend one of my seed starting workshops, offered at different locations around the county in February and March. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Write “Seed Starting Workshop” in the subject line.
• Take the garden tour of a lifetime! Travel with me to visit private and public gardens in Holland and Belgium this coming May. The highlight of our trip is a visit to Floriade 2012, the once-a-decade horticultural World’s Fair just outside Amsterdam. For information, visit www.PlantSoup.com…>