Wrangling Strawberries

Sweet, juicy strawberries are a treat right off the plant. Not only are they easy to grow, but they are also easy to find in all of the community gardens. Many of us have strawberries already growing in our plot or would like to plant some for next year. Whatever you have, it’s important to know how to plant, care and maintain a healthy strawberry patch to ensure a fruitful harvest and minimize disease and pests. Furthermore, the best time to wrangle your strawberry patch is after the fruit harvest, which is right now in Missoula. Below are guidelines and best practices for growing (and wrangling) strawberries in the garden.

Planting

The best way to plant strawberries in a home garden is in a matted row system, where daughter plants are allowed to develop into a solid mat, or in a spaced row system, where the daughter and mother plants are spaced evenly along the row.

(Warning: The photos below were taken from real-life community gardeners’ plots and may contain some weeds.)

Strawberries (in front) in a matted planting.

Strawberries (in front) in a matted planting.

Strawberries in a spaced row planting.

Strawberries in a spaced row planting.

To begin your new strawberry patch, ask a garden neighbor! Since strawberries spread with runners and always produce an abundance of daughter plants, your neighbor will probably be more than willing to share. Just make sure to ask first! You can also find strawberry starts at any local nursery.

Plant on slightly raised beds to assure good soil drainage and work rotted manure or compost into the soil to improve its structure and water-holding capacity. Form the soil beds 18-24 inches wide and three to four inches above grade. Make sure to provide adequate space for sprawling, and set plants 24 inches apart.

Make planting holes deep and wide enough to accommodate the entire root system without bending it. If roots are longer than 8 inches, trim them when transplanting. Most importantly, don’t plant too deep! The roots should be covered, but the crown should be right at the soil surface.

Firm the soil about the plants and water them in. If you can lift the plants with a quick jerk on a leaf, the soil is too loose, and the roots may dry out.

In the first year, pick off blossoms to discourage strawberry plants from fruiting. If not allowed to bear fruit, they will spend their food reserves on developing healthy roots, and the yields will be much greater in following years.

Managing Runners

As the plants grow, you want to keep the beds from becoming overcrowded, which can reduce yield while encouraging disease and pest habitat. Managing runners and the “daughter plants” are the principal means way for keeping your strawberry bed healthy and fruitful year after year. Furthermore, first and second generation plants produce the highest yields!

Because strawberry plants produce an excess of daughter plants, prune extra runners and old plants every season after the last harvest:

  • If you have the spaced row system, leave only four daughter plants evenly spaced (about 10 inches apart). New daughter plants produce the best fruit the following spring if planted early in the spring, and each plant has at least ten leaves by autumn. When new plants are established, remove the old ones (three years and older).
  • If you have a matted system, pull any weeds, trim rouge runners, and cut all strawberry plants down to 2” above grade. Don’t worry, the plants will bounce back over the rest of the summer!

Best Practices for a Fruitful Harvest

  • Moisture is incredibly important due to shallow roots, and strawberry plants need a lot of water when the runners and flowers are developing. Water adequately, about one inch per week.
  • Keep the beds mulched to reduce water needs and weed invasion.
  • Be diligent about weeding, especially in the first months after planting.
  • Pest and Disease Control: Often we don’t realize that a lush strawberry forest creates a cool and damp environment perfect for slugs and other pests, including rodents. Keep your strawberries thinned and healthy will minimize pests and fungal problems.
  • Many berries are damaged by birds, especially robins. Excluding the birds with netting or row cover is most effective. Another method is to drive heavy (stronger than lath) stakes, four feet in length, into the ground at corners of the strawberry bed. Stretch twine between the stakes and attach streamers every five feet along the string to deter birds.
Netting strawberries is the most effective way to keep hungry birds out.

Netting strawberries is the most effective way to keep hungry birds out.