(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 7, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
We started one spring with two dozen June-bearing strawberry plants from the hardware store in the early 1990s when we first built our home. Basically, we used a rototiller to break up a long, narrow rectangle of earth, worked the ground with a shovel, hoe, and rake, took out the weeds, and planted our strawberry plants in two rows. The directions said to pick any fruit that forms and discard it at the initial planting. That was a test of patience; as a young couple just starting out, we were reluctant to toss away any promise or potential that came our way.
But like good little gardeners, we followed directions and set to work simply taking care of our strawberry garden.
Strawberries need water as much as they need good soil. We made sure to run the sprinkler during summertime droughts which are the norm for the Delmarva Peninsula where we live (in the Mid-Atlantic region). Our soil is very, very sandy. Upon close inspection, it appears to be almost all sand. Strawberries do well in sandy soil; good drainage is essential. In addition, they have shallow roots, so they don't like to be planted too deeply. After setting our plants about 18 inches apart in three long rows (which were about 2½ feet apart), we were pleased to notice the runners, or stolons that quickly emerged from the parent plants. My husband and I agreed that strawberries were awesome. Great!, we thought, as we examined the baby plants on the ends of those runners. Even more berries for next year! We let the runners run! They sent out youngsters that were allowed to root wherever they landed.
Sure enough, the next spring, our strawberries were alive and well. We learned later that a three to four-inch mulch covering of straw or chopped cornstalks is ideal to protect the plants over the winter. Strawberries don't do well in temperatures below 20º F and need to be protected from repeated freezing and thawing. Our strawberry bed was protected on the north side by a row of Eastern red cedars over the winters, and we give credit to that wind break for our bountiful yields over the next five years.
When mulching, the idea is to allow your strawberry plants to get used to the cool temperatures in the fall and then cover them before temperatures drop below 20º F. Then, in the spring, the mulch should be gently raked away from the strawberry plants. It's good to keep the raked mulch close by and to leave some mulch around the base of each plant to keep it moist and to protect the fruit from ripening directly on soil. In addition, if a freeze is predicted, you can re-cover the plants if you have to.
There is a concept in June-bearing strawberry care called renovation in which each year after harvesting, the strawberry bed is trimmed and narrowed to rows a foot wide or less, with walking space in between. I must confess that my husband and I have never done this. Our strawberry plants have had free reign over many years in sending out stolons with baby plants rooting every which way. In the end, the once-geometric strawberry bed became a much larger plot with no definition, no shape, and no rows anymore. And unfortunately, we are getting smaller and smaller yields. Renovation would rejuvenate and bring order to such an aging strawberry plot.
This involves sacrificing some plants, but in the end, the rewards are worth it. My husband is loathe to part with ANY strawberry plants, which is why we haven't done any true renovation, but we have been quasi-renovating over the years without knowing it.
What have we been doing, exactly? Creating new beds from the old beds. When the weeds take over, we simply till another section of the yard, lift a few dozen healthy plants from the weed-choked bed, and put them into the newly-tilled area. We continue to weed the old beds but eagerly nurture the new ones while envisioning next year's strawberry desserts. This practice has kept our harvest going since those first peak production years.
You see, the biggest drawback in our experience with strawberries has been weed control. To put it simply, strawberry beds can be lost due to weed overgrowth alone. Everyone who has ever had strawberries knows the weeding involved. I credit the longevity of our strawberries to my husband, who faithfully, year in and year out, has appointed himself the Weeder of the Strawberry Beds. (He would probably reply that I am the Eater of the Strawberry Beds.)
Late last fall, my husband and I tried moving some of our weed-choked plants into a wooden garden box that we filled with bagged garden soil, peat, and humus. Thirty percent of the transplants lived to see the next spring. Now we realize that we should have moved the plants sooner to give them more time to grow strong before winter. No problem, though—James dug up about fifteen more plants this spring from our original strawberry bed to fill in the gaps. Those plants survived, so now we have a thriving strawberry box right off the kitchen in addition to the older strawberry beds behind the house.
We do not feed our strawberries, but a general suggestion is to use a 10-10-10 fertilizer at the rate of one pound per 100 square feet, 6-8 inches deep before initially planting. Fertilizer can then be reapplied after renovation. Watering well cannot be emphasized enough; strawberries need one inch of water per week during the growing season. We have never lost strawberries due to overwatering.
Diseases to watch out for include verticillium wilt, which can be researched on the Internet. One good place to start is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verticillium_wilt.
My husband and I are much more concerned about the birds and toads that feast on our harvest before it makes it indoors. Though not always caught in the act, birds leave telltale slash marks on the crop. Toads are more apt to eat a round hole out of the fruit. The bird problem is solved with bird netting available at garden supply stores. You simply lay the plastic mesh net over your plants and gently pin down the corners with U-shaped wire anchors. You pull out the anchors and fold the netting away to pick the berries and to weed before re-covering the crop again.
In summary, for those who would like to start a strawberry bed, I say, "Go for it!" You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It does not have to be done in a fancy way. That's why the title of this story is Simply Strawberries. Just get them into the ground and improvise as you go over the next few years. Above all else, be faithful in weeding and watering. Soon, your strawberries will reward you with new offset plants that can double, triple, and quadruple your original number of specimens bought from the store, just like in my story. It's worth the adventure!