ManyTracks Organic Gardening
Four decades of Growing
in the Northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula
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Down to Earth Information, Experiences, Thoughts
There are few crops in my garden that I fuss over as much as I do strawberries.
If I give them the care they need, they give me berries. They are quite
straightforward about it -- no attention, no berries. It is an honest and open
There is no one "right" variety. Taste, color, shape, size preference
-- all are an individual choice. Climate and your soil and ecosystem certainly
enter into the picture, as does availability. It does no good to yearn to grow
Fairfax, if no Fairfax plants are to be found. All the descriptive hype
notwithstanding, you won’t know how a strawberry does in your garden and how
you like it until you grow it, harvest it, and eat it yourself.
Most varieties put forth their fruit within a particular time frame -- June in many areas, July in my garden. Some are earlier, some later, so growing a number of varieties spreads the harvest over a longer season, though there is much overlap and each year is different. There are also the "everbearers" that will produce a light crop in the spring, then another in late summer or fall. It may be nice to have a small crop of berries later in the season, or it might just not be worth the bother.
Some varieties, such as Honeoye and Sparkle, are tall and produce their fruit high on the plant, making them easy to pick and popular with commercial growers -- and birds. Others, like Premier and Old North Sea, hug the ground, nestling their berries low within the plant, keeping them safe from frosts and marauding munchers. Others, Catskill and Dunlap in my garden, are in-between. They each shine in different ways and in different years. Occasionally you’ll have a year when every one puts forth with reckless abandon and you find yourself scrambling to find new ways to make use of the fruit.
There are also the perennial "Alpine" berries that you can grow from seed. These bear a generous crop of delicious small berries throughout the season starting the second year, and can be a fun option. Their manner of growth is different than the others as they send out few runners and are usually propagated by division of the crowns.
No matter the variety, you will want to get your beds in shape first, truly weed free and healthy with organic matter, the same as you do with most garden vegetables. A few years of growing and turning in green manure crops can help. Be sure to get those stubborn perennial plants out (such as grass and dandelions) before planting. Once the strawberrys are established, those "weeds" won’t be very easy to dig out without damaging the strawberry plants.
When choosing varieties, consider how you want to grow the plants. As always,
there are many options. If you use tiller or plow to manage your strawberry
patch, then the common mat system is probably what you will use. The plants are
allowed to set runners freely; the "mother" plants tilled under in the
fall and the "daughters" (runners) are left for next year’s
producing plants. Then their runners fill in the old space to produce the
next year’s crop, and the old daughter plants are tilled in. And so on, back
and forth. For this system, varieties that are prolific producers of runners are
You can also grow strawberries in pots and planters or special strawberry barrels if your garden is an apartment balcony or a small patch between house and pavement and neighbors. One fresh sun ripened strawberry is better than no fresh strawberries, though the harvest is rather sparse given the work, and you may find the limited space better utilized. The Alpine berries might be a good choice for this type of mini-plot.
Since my strawberries are an integral part of my permanent bed garden, I’ve
come up with a different system that works for me. As is often the case, this
method isn’t "new" at all. Though I worked it out naturally for
myself, I have since read of similar plans in old gardening books. It is no
doubt common to many gardeners.
My beds are approximately four feet wide and I maintain four rows of berries therein. New plantings with purchased plants are usually established in the spring. If you are using your own or a friend’s rooted runners then you might do this later in the summer or early fall. If you have plenty of plants to start with, simply fill up the bed with four rows, spacing plants 8" - 14" apart. Some varieties will want more space (Sparkle and Honeoye), some less (Premier), while others will be happy with 10" (Catskill and Dunlap), at least this is so in my garden. But you can easily change spacing when you set new runners, after you’ve seen how the varieties grow. If you haven’t enough plants for a full bed, then put them only in every other row, or skip every other space in the row, or leave two spaces between. It might take a year or two to fill the bed, longer if the variety is a reluctant producer of runners, but it will happen.
As the plants grow and send out runners, move the best ones to the empty spaces. Run them under the mulch and they will be more apt to stay where you place them, pushing the little plant gently into the dirt. If you need to, you can make simple holders out of pieces of coat hanger or other wire, bent in the shape of a somewhat lopsided N. But be careful not to push the wire down so hard you sever the runner stem. Most other runners are pulled off, leaving a few in case they are needed later.
As summer continues so does the fussbudgy part of growing strawberries in this manner -- pulling off runners -- again, and again, and again. Prolific little buggers they are, too, most of them. They WANT to multiply, and really aren’t impressed by your arguments to the contrary. It is a constant but hardly a difficult nor disagreeable chore. As you pull runners you can pull the stray weed. When you are picking strawberries, you can pull runners. When you are walking by you can reach down and pull of that errant little runner, hiding among the mulch or enthusiastically heading across the path.
Now some runners are particularly hefty and hardy guys so you have to take care not to pull the mother plant out when jerking on the runner. You may decide to use a pair of garden shears for some varieties, though a two handed approach generally suffices. You don’t HAVE to continually pull runners. You can let them go where they will, setting root where they choose and simply thin them all out at the end of the season. But they do tend to crowd the place, and good air circulation is cheap insurance against many diseases and unhappy plants. Pulling runners off before they root, I’ve found, is easier.
Thus the managed strawberry bed develops. Anytime you notice a poorly plant, pull it out and replace it with a runner from a healthy, productive plant. Once the bed is full you can begin regularly replacing old plants with new runners every year or two: every other row, or every other plant in the row, or whatever system suits you and your plants.
RENEWAL -- Decide which rows
will be pulled out -- let’s say the first and third rows. Pull runners off
these plants as usual. Even though you’ll be removing these plants later, if
you don’t pull the runners off now, they will put down roots here and there
and make the job more difficult. On rows two and four, leave a couple of good,
strong, healthy runners per plant, placing them where they are not in the way.
Usually if they are on top of the mulch they’ll grow their roots but not get
down to anchor in the dirt before you are ready to place them.
Smooth and firm the soil back in the rows, maybe adding some compost if you have extra. Then take a runner from each plant in rows two and four, run it under the mulch and set it in the now vacant, adjacent row at whatever distance you’ve determined would be best. Firm the little runner plant gently into the dirt, pin if necessary and water. Then pull the mulch back around the plants and let them settle in. You might water them a few more times if the weather doesn’t, but generally there is not much else to do but let them be.
The next year or two do the same thing but remove rows two and four. When you remove the old plants, you can also remove those stubborn perennial weeds that become established in spite of your best efforts. In this way you can maintain your strawberry bed for a long time.
MOVING -- To move your bed, let healthy runners set root in convenient spots between plants or along the edges of the bed and let them root. If you set early runners, they can usually be severed from the mother plant and dug and transplanted to the new bed that fall. Or do it early spring.
I’ve also set the runners into
small clay pots full of soil,
nestled in among the plants and mulch. It’s more work, but might make it
easier to move them a distance. Be sure to keep the pots watered if nature doesn’t,
they dry out easily.
MULCH -- Most weeds will not
be a problem in the strawberry patch because of the generous layer of mulch you
are maintaining (you ARE mulching, aren’t you?). I prefer hay, weed-free of
course, and if possible loose, not baled. This won’t be an option for many,
but if you can get it, it is wonderfully nice to work with. When we cut hay for
mulch in the summer, I make sure I leave a good pile for late fall mulching of
the strawberry patch. Left under an apple tree, it does double duty of mulching
the apple tree meantime. In late fall, when the temperature is staying regularly
below freezing, I spread a generous blanket of mulch over the strawberries. If I’m
short of piled hay, then I pull some up from the paths to cover the plants. The
paths don’t need the protection over winter, but the strawberries might.
In the spring, when the plants underneath their protective covering start growing and calling for sunshine, I pull the mulch off the tops and tuck it around and between the plants. And that pretty much takes care of the weeding and the need to water. If your soil is not well drained or doesn’t hold enough moisture under the mulch for healthy plants, then work on your soil. Holding a hose over the plot every week splattering cold water over the plants is a poor alternative. And not particularly pleasant for the plants I would think. Trust nature and the plants -- they really DO know how to do it.
PROBLEMS -- There are many
diseases and insects who live hand in hand with strawberries. If you have
healthy soil and give your bed adequate attention, particularly to keeping it
comfortably thinned, then you will probably not be troubled significantly with
any problem ( not counting the furred or feathered varieties). If you find one
kind of strawberry particularly susceptible to a blight or fungus in your area,
then grow a different variety. If a plant is doing poorly, then pull it out and
replace it with a healthy runner.
Choose a new bed, free of weeds, with healthy, humus rich soil. Transplant the best looking runners from your old bed, pinching off all but the best looking leaves. Treat as you would any new strawberry bed, spacing generously, watering, caring and mulching. As the plants grow, pull out those that are marginal and set runners from the best ones. This is usually a several year process of selection, so be patient and don’t reduce your planting to a bare skeleton. If your plants truly are too far infected, then you’ll simply have to start over with new plants. But if you succeed, you have a selection of plants that are particularly resistant to whatever problem they had to begin with.
BIRDS -- For twenty years I’d
shared my strawberries with the various birds and small furred creatures that
live here, with no great problem. I’d come to appreciate the varieties that
hid their berries among the foliage instead of holding their berries up and out
for all to see -- and eat. I was the only overly greedy harvester. But life is
never static. Last year (2004) I was looking forward to one of our best
strawberry harvests ever. I had spent many years and untold hours renovating my
strawberry beds -- 65 feet of four rows of six varieties of healthy, producing
plants. Buds were set, fruit was forming, and on June 24, I picked the first
early, delicious berries from the small but wonderfully hardy and prolific Old
North Sea plants. A few days later I got a handful. Basketfuls would be ready
soon. At the other end of the bed, the more modern, large Honeoye were not far
behind. Though not my favorite for flavor, they do produce well and are early. I
could see the Catskill and Sparkle coloring up as well. Dunlap and Premier, I
knew, would be later.
Then I heard a chorus of short high musical tones -- coming from a flock of birds that I had been enjoying recently as they played and flitted among the apple trees, as only Cedar Waxwings can do. We’d always had a few in the fall, and maybe a few in the spring when the apples were in blossom, but never a resident flock in July. I smiled in pleasant recognition, which turned to amazement, then laughter, as they ignored me and made beelines to the strawberry patch. Certainly no mystery any longer! But what to do about it? I chased them away and realized the solution had to be fast if we were to have any strawberries at all. I didn’t mind sharing, but I wasn’t THAT generous.
Nylon netting was out of the question, I simply didn’t want it in my garden. So I enlisted Steve’s inventive self and we soon came up with a plan. We dropped all else and went to work. He scrounged up some 3/8" rebar and headed off to the shop and his torch. I made some phone calls then took off for town to buy several rolls of chicken wire.
Back home, Steve cut and bent half loops of the rebar for the ends of the beds, and I folded fencing over them. Long rebar "staples" were placed down the middle of the rows, to stand about two feet above the bed. I cut the 4 foot wide fence into 7 foot lengths, folded the cut ends into a "hem" to make them easier and more comfortable to manage. Then we draped the fencing over the bed, edge to edge, held up by the rebar staples in the middle and resting on the mulch on the edge of the beds.
Finally, the strawberries were covered and secure. We went in to dinner. Then I came back out to find a lone Cedar Waxwing inside the cage,
unhappily trying to get out. I released him, then rounded up a batch of clip
clothespins to pin the edges of the chicken wire pieces together. That was the
last bird we had in the strawberry patch until the cover was removed.
SOURCES -- Unfortunately, I know of few sources for the older varieties of strawberries now that Walter K. Morss of Massachusetts has retired from the business. If you are interested in other than the usual "modern" commercial varieties, ask around, maybe there is someone in your area growing one or two, and who might be willing to share a few runners with you. The internet should make it easier now to find varieties and sources so do some searching. Though, as I mentioned, I recommend getting plants grown as close to your home as possible.
FEDCO Trees, PO Box 520, Waterville ME 04903-0520, does carry some varieties and will hopefully carry more as they come up with other sources (they used to handle Walter Morss's berries). Send for a catalogue or check their listings on their website at www.fedcoseeds.com. They often list different varieties different years, and have good descriptions and a very good philosophy.
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Strawberries didn’t do well this year, but I can’t blame it on the weather. I had
ignored them the year before and they were all too thick. Finally in July and
August I got in there and thinned vigorously. I set runners into small clay pots
set in the bed to start new plots. Though this works well, I’ve decided it is
much easier to just dig up the naturally rooted runners and transplant directly
and not go to the trouble of potting them. They do as well, or better, and you
don’t have to worry about getting them planted before they get too root bound
in the pots.
In the fall after the peas were harvested (because that spot was where I wanted one of the new beds) I transplanted the little pots of runners of Dunlap, one of my favorite strawberries for flavor. Then I transplanted Old North Sea among the pepper plants, as the peppers weren’t done yet. In the spring I shall buy a couple of new varieties as well. I set them all in four rows, 20 inches apart, and will let the plants set one runner between, so they will end up about 10 inches apart. I’ve found this to be a good distance for growth and air circulation and to mulch. By managing the runners (when I DO it!) I can keep a good bed going for many years. But eventually the perennial weeds (particularly grass and dandelions) get a hold and it’s easier to move the bed to a clean plot. Maybe I'll do better in the future.
* * * * *
Changes: More varieties planted, and more dropped in the last seven years.
Catskill because, as interesting an old variety as it is, it never thrived. Plus
the berries went from barely ripe to mushy overnight it seemed, though the
flavor wasn't bad. Sparkle because it "ran out" after only two years,
as it has done for me before. It's a great berry and I like it, but apparently
my garden and conditions are not to its liking which is too bad. Honeoye finally
came out this year as I admitted that though large and beautiful and productive
a berry, it was just plain flavorless. I'd diligently search all over the Old
North Sea plot for just one more little luscious jewel to eat before I'd give up
and pick some easy Honeoye's. But only for sauce, never to go on the table for
fresh eating. All looks, no flavor. Plus it was way too prolific in runner
production. Nice strong large plants though. Premier never made much of a crop
for me and those that came were slow ripening, soft, and insipid tasting. So I
replaced it with some Earliglow from a local grower. Lesson learned here: it's a
great idea to buy your plants locally IF the grower does a good job and IF the
plants are healthy and hearty. These weren't, and they didn't get any better.
Prolific runners and hardly any berries. I'd grown Earliglow before so knew it
was an OK berry, but these just couldn't get past their poor beginnings. Sigh.
But it has been fun, and many, many nice harvests of delicious berries have been harvested and eaten. My system of renewing one row of the four each year has worked well (plus taking out any other plants that aren't thriving). The plants continue to do well in the patch that was started the fall of 2001. The yearly hay mulch continues to keep the soil rich and moist (even in the drought years) and helps immensely in keeping the weeds out. It's not been that hard to keep those that root pulled and the runners thinned. And the more comfortable the strawberries are, the more I enjoy spending time with them. It's amazing how nice a crop you can get if you give it a reasonable amount of attention and care. And let them do what they do best.
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© 2004 - 2008 by Susan Robishaw
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Have you read "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.
or "Homesteading Adventures" Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.
and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun" A journey you can use in your own garden.