Strawberries were an important crop of early truck farms
I come from a long line of strawberry farmers and I guess the desire to grow edibles is just part of my DNA. During the Great Depression my grandparents had what was known as a 'truck farm'. They raised a number of fruits and vegetables for wholesale to other markets. Strawberries were one of those crops. I'm sure they would be surprised to learn that a strawberry has more in common with a rose or an apple than a blueberry.
It was a big, early 20th Century family and everyone worked. The women and girls made sure the men had meals on time and plenty of food fuel for the long days of hard farm labor. The men (and boys) worked from sun-up to sun-down scratching out a living in the west Kentucky clay soil. There wasn't much in the way of cash, but there was always food. No one went hungry because they raised or grew everything on their dinner table and the spring strawberry crop was their first harvest of the year. Due to the fact that strawberries don't store well, it was important to pick and ship them quickly. Everyone pitched in to get the first cash crop to market. Little did they know about the long history of the humble strawberry.
How modern strawberries came to be
The strawberries that we know today are descended from wild ancestors growing around the world. There are a number of strawberry species in the genus Fragaria that grow in temperate areas. The Romans were familiar with them and the French were too. They were considered a medicinal plant and were used in treating depression, gout, kidney stones and even bad breath. Over in the New World, native peoples mixed wild strawberries with ground cornmeal to make a flavored bread. European settlers later tweaked the recipe a bit and came up with strawberry shortcake. These original strawberries were tiny little things and often tough. However, once the strawberries from the New World were crossed with their European cousins in the early 1700's, the result was a game-changer. Size increased to approximately what we are familiar with today and flavor improved markedly. Strawberries are now #5 behind bananas, apples, grapes and oranges as a favorite fresh fruit.
My grandparents instilled the desire to grow food in their children and growing strawberries is also something that our later generations did, even though we have long since given up the truck farm. Just about all of us had strawberry plants at our homes and one aunt and uncle even had a U-Pick strawberry farm. I remember picking strawberries in our patch and selling them in a makeshift fruit stand out in front of our home. (we also sold watermelons and corn in season)
June-bearing or day-neutral, which strawberry is for you?
The strawberries that my family grew long ago were June-bearing fruits. They bloomed in early spring and set one large crop of fruit that ripened over about a 2 week period. Once the berries were picked, we were done until the next season. That is because these June-bearers are sensitive to day length and will only produce blooms when the daylight hours are shorter, as in early spring. Here in west Kentucky, these ripen in May instead of June due to our warmer climate.
Now we have ever-bearing strawberries that are day-neutral. These plants produce a smaller set of fruit per plant, however they produce all summer. These berries are generally smaller than the June bearers, but just as tasty.
Both kinds of strawberries have similar cultural requirements. They like at least 8 hours of sun each day and a slightly acidic soil, so each will benefit from a good top dressing of compost in late winter. Covering strawberries with a layer of straw each winter protects the flower buds as they form and once fruit sets, the layer of straw keeps the strawberries off the soil, preventing rot. They also like their crowns exposed and many people plant their strawberries too deep, which tends to rot the crowns. Just make sure the roots are covered. A strawberry plant should sit high in the soil and better yet, plant them on a raised mound to keep the crowns from getting soggy. They like ample water, but can't stand 'wet feet'.
Lots of pests like strawberries as well as humans and sometimes it is a struggle just to have a harvest. Slugs, snails, fruit flies and numerous aphids all find strawberries tasty and unfortunately, this leads to quite a bit of pesticide application in commercial farms. Strawberries are ranked as one of the Top 10 fruits that see the most pesticide use. Unless you are sure of the source, wash your store-bought berries well before consuming. We never had that problem. Our berries were organic before the term was even coined, so snacking on them straight from the field posed no harm. This is yet another reason to grow your own. Slugand snail problems can be avoided by planting your strawberries through holes in black plastic mulch and good garden hygiene usually keeps other pests to a minimum.
Strawberry daughters? What are they and when should you encourage them
June bearing strawberries produce many runners and new plants grow along the stem. The first year, you are establishing a perennial bed, so clip all of the runners except for 2 or 3 daughters per plant and remove the blossoms so the plant will put its energy into growing bigger and stronger. It's hard to remove those potential strawberries, but your plants will thank you. After 2 years of production (3 years in your garden) Let your runners develop and transplant them into a fresh bed. Strawberry plants lose their vigor after a few seasons, so it is best to go again with new stock. Another trick is to clip or mow the foliage in the fall and rake away the debris before covering them with straw. This removes fungal problems that might plague your plants the next spring.
Day neutral strawberries don't produce as many runners and they don't produce as many strawberries all at once. There is less stress on the plant and so you can leave the flowers to produce. For small areas where you aren't interested in high production, they work well. Just remember that just like their June bearing cousins, after 2 or 3 years you need to freshen your stock. However, you'll need more plants to produce as many strawberries at the same time as the June bearing types. Check the tag, or with your garden professional to choose the type that is best for your needs. There are hundreds of named cultivars and many are suited for specific regions of the country.
Home-grown strawberries versus store-bought. There's no comparison
There's nothing in the world like a vine-ripened strawberry. They do not continue to ripen after they are picked, so most strawberries taste nothing like the 'real thing'. (Please note...strawberries are NOT supposed to be crunchy) I'm betting most folks don't realize that strawberries are not supposed to be white inside either. A properly ripened strawberry should be just as red at its heart as it is on the outside. You won't find any of those in the supermarket, so don't even bother to look. My grandfather would be appalled at what passes for strawberries these days.
The good thing is, you don't have to have a farm to grow strawberries, even a sunny balcony will serve. You may not have a big harvest, but your kids can pick their own each morning to go on their cereal. They are both useful and decorative, so try a few this year.
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