It’s 55°F outside, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and spring feels right around the corner. If you’re anything like me, you’re already dreaming about May: peonies, irises, and that first ruby-red strawberry juice dribbling down your chin. Every May, my mother and sisters and I head over to Westmoreland Berry Farm to pick several quarts of luscious, sun-ripened strawberries—for making jam and of course for eating fresh. As fun as that annual outing is, this year I’m hoping to replace it with something even more exciting: picking strawberries in our own backyard.
I planted my first strawberry plants last fall. Actually, that’s not quite true. I planted my very first strawberry plants fifteen years ago. Twenty-five little ever-bearers from Henry Field’s, promptly gobbled up by rapacious deer. It’s taken me fifteen years to get up the courage to try again. And so far, things seem to be going well. The plants are snug in their straw mulch (the name ‘strawberries’ isn’t a coincidence!) and covered with a layer of ¾” plastic mesh. The package stated that the mesh was not chew-proof, but I’m hoping it will prove unappetizing enough to save the majority of the leaves and berries from being devoured. And the leaves are really popping up in this mild February weather.
I planted my strawberries last fall because I missed the usual spring planting time and I’d read that fall-planted strawberries can actually produce their first (small) harvest the following season. Unlike spring-planted strawberries, they have all winter to grow roots and gather their forces for the coming fruiting period. But this isn’t to say you shouldn’t plant some strawberries this spring. You most certainly should! You can put them in the ground as soon as the soil can be worked. (Here in the Virginia inland plains, that time will be coming in two or three weeks—maybe sooner!) The plants will grow lots of leaves this summer (you should pinch off any flower buds), and next year they’ll reward you with a great crop—better than the one you’ll get if you do what I did and wait until fall to plant. So learn from my mistakes: start now!
I ordered my strawberry plants online from Jung. I didn’t do this because they’re the best place to order from, but because they were the only place I could find affordable, bare-root plants for fall shipping. The selection was actually pretty slim in November, and I ended up buying a couple of their “surprise” packages. You pay a couple of dollars less for each bundle of 25, but Jung gets to choose the variety. I ordered 25 June-bearers and 25 everbearers for $21.85, including shipping. (June-bearers bear all at once in the spring. Everbearers produce another harvest in late summer.) The June-bearers Jung sent me were Cavendish, and the everbearers were Tristar. To my surprise, they sent much more than the 25 of each I’d ordered. Total, I had about 85 plants, all of good size. I quickly decided to expand the strawberry bed and plant them all. Maybe Jung sends more than 25 plants because they know some won’t make it through the winter—there are some from which I haven’t seen much sign of life—but even if that’s so, I can always fill in the empty spots with extra annual vegetables. (Goodness knows I’ve got plenty of seeds!)
Anyway, if you’re looking to start a strawberry bed this spring, here are a few things that should help you plan:
June-bearing and everbearing varieties have slightly different spacing requirements, due to their different propensity for producing runners. (Runners are horizontally spreading stems that grow baby plants, like you see on a spider plant). June-bearers should be set 18-24” apart in rows 42-48” apart. This allows room for runners to root around the parent plants and produce a thick, matted row system. Everbearing strawberry plants should be set 12-15” apart in rows 30-36” apart. Their runners don’t produce much fruit and should be cut off. Jung says that generally 50-75 June-bearing plants will provide enough fresh fruit for a family. If you want to freeze or make jam from your home-grown berries, plant more.
There are so many varieties of strawberries available, adapted to many different climates and uses. A great place to start your research (and I do recommend that, unlike me, you do some research on your varieties) is strawberryplants.org. They even have a list of recommended varieties for each U.S. state.
Site and Soil
Strawberries need full sun. They also need good drainage and a site that isn’t infested with perennial grasses and weeds. A spot that you have previously cultivated for a vegetable garden would be ideal from this point of view. (This is what I used.) Before you plant, mix a liberal amount of compost or rotted manure into the soil, at least a ¼” layer. Mix in organic fertilizer at the same time. I used 5 quarts of my all-purpose organic fertilizer on every 100 sq. ft. of strawberry bed. Detailed planting instructions should be included with your purchase of strawberry plants. And don’t forget to do something to deter deer and other critters that will want to munch on the tender new leaves of your plants!
Have fun! Next year’s harvest will be here before we know it!