If there is one fruit that conjured up early summer it must be the strawberry. Eaten plain, with whipped cream or ice-cream, in shortcake, smoothies or sorbets, and if you have too many, turned into jam, this versatile fruit is loved by everyone. Unlike many fruits, you don’t need to grow a big tree to have fresh strawberries right from your own garden, indeed this must be the easiest of all fruits to grow. For just a little simple work you can grow your own fruits. Strawberry bushes grow, flower and fruit with ease in most situations and produce a generous crop for just a little work.
Strawberry Bushes are plants that grow to around 1½ feet across and 1 foot high, so they are often grown in rows in a bed next to, or in, the vegetable garden. If you have a dedicated area for fruit production – a good idea, since things like bird protection are easier to organize – a section can be set aside for strawberry beds. However, there are also some novel ways to grow these plants, such as planting them among flowering perennials or at the top of a low garden wall, where the fruits can hang down attractively and remain clean too.
They also do well in pots and you may be able to find some strawberry pots, large clay or plastic pots with several holes in the sides into which plants are placed. A large barrel can have holes drilled in it and the holes filled with plants. Wall pots and other modern stacking and hanging systems can be very effectively used to create areas for Strawberry Bushes that take up very little ground space. They can even be trained to grow onto a trellis.
Strawberry Bushes are part of the Rose family, and the small white flowers do indeed look like miniature white single roses. Wild strawberries grow naturally throughout the Northern Hemisphere, from China and Japan, through Asia and Russia into Europe and also in cooler regions of North and South America. Many bear edible fruits and the European Woodland Strawberry, which grows in open woods and fields, has been eaten for many centuries. This plant was commercially cultivated and still exists today as the Alpine Strawberry, or frais de bois. In the 1750s a French gardener crossed a strawberry brought from eastern North America with one from Chile, and produced the Garden Strawberry (Fragaria × ananassa), which was the beginning of all the modern varieties of strawberries grown today.
The strawberry is a herbaceous plant, not a tree or bush, so it dies down to the roots each year and send up a new batch of leaves every spring. The leaves have a long stalk with three leaflets at the end, arranged like a clover leaf. The plant is like a green mound, about 1 foot tall and 2 feet across when fully grown. The flowers come out in a cluster on a long stalk, and after flowering each flower develops into a fruit, which has a fleshy center with the seeds embedded in the outside. Those green leaves at the bottom of a strawberry used to surround the flower. Each plant produces a few to many flower stalks, and each stalk can have several flowers so even one plant can produce a good quantity of strawberries.
Strawberry Bushes can reproduce from seed, but the resulting plants will not be like their parents and will probably be of lower quality. Strawberries also reproduce by sending out long stems called runners, which have a baby plant on the end, which will root where it contacts the ground and form a new plant identical to the parent.
Strawberry varieties are of two main types. June-flowering strawberries are the most common type, especially for commercial growing, as these produce a large harvest all at the same time, chiefly in June but the harvest date is influenced by the variety you are growing and the climate zone you garden in. The problem for home gardeners growing June-flowering strawberries is that they have a huge crop all at once and then nothing for a whole year.
The other main type is the Everbearing Strawberry, which flowers continuously during the warmer times of year and so in constantly producing a steady supply of fruit over a long period without a major glut. This is the ideal type for home gardeners as you will have a nice supply of berries over a long period and no waste from too much ripe fruit all at the same time.
Strawberries are hardy from zone 3 to zone 8. In warmer zones, to avoid diseases on the fruit, plants are grown to flower in fall and develop fruit slowly over winter which ripens in spring. In most areas plants flower in spring and fruit develops quickly in the warmer weather. Choose a warm, sunny spot to grow your Strawberry bushes in.
Strawberry bushes are not fussy about soil and will grow well in most types of common soils. They do like plenty of organic material in the soil and prefer good drainage but not dryness. So when preparing a planting area dig it over well and add some rich organic material like garden compost, well-rotted manure, seaweed compost or other rich sources. If your soil is heavy and doesn’t drain well, make raised ridges or beds to plant on.
Strawberry bushes produce a smaller crop of very large berries in their first year, a good crop of medium size berries in the second year, and a bumper crop of smaller berries in the third year. At that point the plants should be replaced. So the best way to grow them in the home garden is to divide the area available into quarters. Plant one of the quarters each year with young plants. In the fourth year remove the three-year old plants and grow something else on that quarter for one year, then plant it with new plants.
Don’t plant that resting area with vegetables from the tomato family as they may leave diseases behind. So you will have one plot resting each year, and three in production, with one-third of your plants being one year old, one-third two years old and one-third three years old. If you want to get off to a good start, plant all three areas with new plants and then replant one area with new plants each year until you have the correct age distribution. That way you will have a good amount of fruit right from the start.Strawberry bushes in pots and other container systems should also be replaced after three years of cropping.
The standard spacing is 1 foot between plants and 2 feet between rows. If you have heavy soil or live in a cold area, raised beds will drain better and warm up faster in spring. Allow 2½ feet between the beds, which should be 2 feet wide and 6 inches high. Wooden boards make good sides for the beds. Plant the Strawberry bushes in the beds in double, staggered rows 1 foot apart, with 9 inches between the plants in the rows.
Strawberry bushes should be kept damp, but not wet. Water thoroughly and then let the soil get a little dry before watering again. If your leaves begin to turn yellow with green veins you are watering too much and should let the soil dry more between watering. If you grow plants in pots the hanging fruit will remain clean, but it is best with bushes in the ground to cover the soil around them with straw, black garden plastic or landscape fabric to keep the fruit clean. This is why they are called strawberries. This will also help reduce weeds and save work weeding.
At the end of the growing season the old foliage should be cut off and the area cleaned up. In colder areas the straw that was used to keep the fruit clean should be racked over the plants for protection in the winter. Don’t use the old leaves for this as they may carry pests and diseases. In spring remove the old straw and replace with new material. Before planting new plants in the quarter of your bed that has been having a rest, dig plenty of organic material into the soil. You can use runners from your plants to replace the old ones but it is better to buy them fresh as they will then be disease-free and you will maintain the good quality of your bushes.
If you have a greenhouse or solarium, young strawberry plants in pots can be over-wintered outside and then brought indoors to produce an early crop. Use an artist’s paint-brush to transfer pollen from one flower to another as their will be no bees around to do that job for your plants. If you do this you will have your own strawberries before the first crops arrive in the stores.