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Strawberries are a classic fruit for a reason. Loved by almost everyone, fabulous flavor fresh or in pie or in jam, strawberries are highly desired.
Strawberries can be a bit complicated to grow, but each step by itself is not hard. It’s a process. Let’s break it down.
Strawberries are perennials, so you want to give them a good start. When you order plants, they come as bare roots. You can plant in the spring after the last frost or in the fall before the first frost.
If you start strawberries from seed, you will probably start them in December or January and keep them inside until after danger of frost has passed. Starting from seed means you will not have a crop for at least a year. You want to pinch off the flowers the first year so that the plant can work on growing healthy roots.
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There are lots of strawberry varieties. Each variety produces for 10-12 days, so you will see early, mid-season, and late-season varieties. Having different varieties can extend your harvest. You definitely want varieties that are resistant to Verticillium fungus. This is a fungus which kills the growing strawberries. Once infection sets in, there is no practical way to kill the fungus.
There are June bearing, day neutral, and everbearing strawberries. They require different planting and runner maintenance. The following is information for the classic June bearing strawberry plants.
Where to plant
Full sun. The more sun, the more berries. Minimum six to eight hours of direct sunshine each day. Strawberries can be planted in the ground, in containers, in raised beds, or in hanging baskets.
Matted row system
For June bearing strawberries, this means to allow runners to spread freely and root at will. This will form a criss-cross matted row about 24 inches wide. This will result in a lot of berries, but they may be smaller in size, compared to a hill system. The plants do best if you limit them to five plants per square foot.
Hill or Mound system
Mound the soil up about eight inches and 24 inches across. Plant about 12 inches apart, with two rows on the mound. Stagger the plants so they are planted in-between the spaces of the plants in the opposite row. Runners are removed from the plants as soon as possible.
You need to add fertilizer when planting, and at the end of the season. If you add too much fertilizer, you will get lots of leafy growth and few berries so only add fertilizer those two times.
A bit sandy, drains well, loam with high organic matter. Add extra compost, peat moss, or sand to your soil to create a good growing site. These will help aerate the soil. Avoid areas where brambles, melons, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, or peppers have been grown in the past five years, as they are also susceptible to Verticillium fungus.
Strawberries like their soil slightly acidic, about 5.8-6.2, for best flavor. Check your soil before planting and amend as needed. Lime and chicken manure will raise the pH and sulfur will lower the pH. There are at-home pH tests you can use or you can get a soil test kit from your local Cooperative Extension Office and for a small fee they will test the soil pH and nutrients and give you recommendations on amendments that may be needed.
Strawberries lose in the competition between weeds and strawberry plants, so it is important to keep the patch free of weeds. Add a layer of mulch around your plants to help suppress the weeds and to help keep moisture in. The mulch also helps keep your berries off the dirt, so cleaner and less soil borne diseases. Whether you choose the Matted Row or the Hill System, you will want to keep the aisles weed-free as well. Landscape fabric, straw, or – my favorite because it’s free – leaves all work well.
Birds and slugs are the primary pests for strawberries. A floating row cover or bird netting can help with keeping the birds away. In a wet year, slugs can be very damaging. Foil, slug traps, or copper ribbon can help.
Strawberries need regular water but they hate being rained on. A drip irrigation hose is great for strawberry plants, because it gets the water on the roots and not on the berries. If the area gets puddles, this will cause problems for your strawberry plants. It’s best to have the bed elevated about six inches so that water can run off. Strawberries do not like drought conditions either! Consistent watering is necessary.
Strawberry plants set their buds in the fall and then need at least six to eight weeks of dormancy during a cold period in order to build the sugars for next year’s fruit.
Strawberry plants can survive cold winters, but the flowers in the spring are easily frozen. If frost hits the flowers, the frost kills them and you have to wait for the plant to set more flowers. A floating row cover will add four degrees of protection, which is often enough to protect from a light frost.
At the other end, strawberries do not like hot weather. They start slowing production when the temperature is in the 80s, and three days in a row over 90 means the end. They will not set any more flowers.
Always harvest when the berries are completely dry. Damp berries will cause a bloom of mold and fungus very quickly, both on the berries you pick and on the plants and unripe berries you leave behind. Even refrigerated, wet strawberries will develop mold within 24 hours.
Once the harvest is over, you want to renovate the bed. You remove old plants, leave the new runner plants, and add compost to feed the soil.
Wonderful strawberries! Are they hard to grow? Not really, but they do require attention in several different areas. Your other options are to find a local farm and eat their berries!
Happy growing and happy eating!