Growing Strawberries Organically

How to Grow Strawberries

growing-strawberries

By Tim King – I am a strawberry enthusiast. In fact, strawberries are my favorite crop. The fruit is stunningly beautiful. It’s more than delicious. At their peak the plants are dark green and confident. We don’t have to plant them every year. I sell every berry my plants can produce. Yet growing strawberries and marketing them has left many a home gardener and small market gardener frustrated to the point of tears.

Winter kill, insects, disease, weeds, renovation, and marketing problems are experiences that can drive you to till up an innocent strawberry patch.

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We’ve been growing strawberries organically in my family’s small market garden since its inception in 1986. The patch provides us with subsistence eating of fresh and frozen berries twelve months per year and up to a $1,000 of cash annually.

But when we began we made a major mistake. We were in a hurry. We ignored the advice of those wiser than us. And we waged a losing conflict with grass and weeds for years as a result.

In mid-April we plowed a portion of an alfalfa field to prepare for the plants. After plowing and discing I ran my roto-tiller through the area before we planted in mid-May. In other words we kept the field black for a month before we planted.

If I were to begin again I would keep the field black for a year. I’d combine every other week tillage with a late summer planting of a green manure of rye, oats, or solid seeded soybeans. All of these crops, except winter rye, would freeze out in my cold climate. They would protect the soil through the winter and put back organic matter.

You might think that you can put in a cover crop earlier and it will smother weeds and grasses. That way you won’t have to keep the soil black. My experience has been well established perennial grasses do just fine under most so-called smother crops. Another approach to getting into growing strawberries, if they wish to add organic matter throughout the summer, is to sheet compost the field once or twice early in the season. If you aren’t doing so already, you might want to learn how to compost at home. I’ve not done this for growing strawberries, but I do it while holding garlic beds fallow. I spread a thin layer of leaves over the area to be planted in late May when the soil has warmed. Then I till them into the few inches of soil. I do that again a month later and, keeping ahead of the weeds with tillage throughout the summer, the leaves have broken down by fall. By the way, let your annual weeds get nice and succulent before you till them under. That way they protect the soil from rain, promote biological activity in the soil, and act as nice carbon collectors for building organic matter. Just don’t let them go to seed-and don’t be as kind to perennial grasses.

growing-strawberries

Tim’s family farm has been growing strawberries organically since 1986

Plants & Planting

Variety is important but it’s a local issue when growing strawberries. We’ve had excellent success with Glooscap and Honeyoye. Combine them both and your season, with the early Honeyoye and late Glooscap, will be extended. Although Honeyoye seems to have increasing problems with leaf disease in our garden. I’ve been pleased with Sparkle but not with Kent. We’re experimenting with Mira. To choose your varieties visit the strawberry trials at the closest University Experiment Station. Then visit local berry growers. I know of no grower in my area who has succeeded with everbearing varieties-including my own failure with Laramie. Some years ago there was experimentation in our area with day neutral berries, such as Tristar, planted as a closely spaced annual over plastic mulch. I don’t know if the project was profitable.

I have purchased berry plants from two places: a well-known national garden seed catalog and a specialized berry plant supplier from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. The plants from the seed catalog were wimpy in root, and I received exactly the number I ordered. The plants from the specialty house always has huge roots and included more plants than I ordered.

The wimps either died or sent out few and skinny runners. This assured the establishment of a spotty bed. The big-rooted plants lived and quickly sent out many thick runners. This bed is now lush and vigorous. There is essentially no recovery from poor plants-even two or three years later. Don’t settle for wimpy plants.

We hand planted 6,000 plants our first year. It was hard work and, now that I’m old and lazy, I wouldn’t do it again. But if you’re energetic and at least young of mind you can put a lot of plants into the ground without a tractor-pulled transplanter.

When growing strawberries, start with two people, strawberry plants, a bucket of water enriched with fish emulsion, and a long handled shovel. Soak the berry plants in the water for an hour before planting. Don’t dig holes with the shovel! Turn the concave part toward you. Insert it straight into the soil four to five inches deep and pull the handle back toward you about 30 degrees. This will open the soil. While the shovel is still in the soil the person not on the shovel handle retrieves a plant from the water bucket-never take a plant out of the bucket until immediately before planting-and put it into the soil. The crown-where leaves and roots meet-should be at or slightly below the soil surface. The roots should have plenty of room in the crevasse and not be bunched up. Now pull the shovel out and stomp, with your boot heel, on the soil near the base of the plant. This should close the crevasse up nicely. Don’t worry: strawberry plants can survive the glancing blow of your boot. Fact is, a friend of mine with a larger operation used to drive his tractor over his machine planted plants to make sure they were snug. After you’ve got your first plant in pace off one foot and do another plant. One person runs the shovel/stomping effort and the other inserts the plants.

Space rows of plants three feet apart-no less. It may look too wide when you plant but remember those daughter plants who like to spread their wings. They’ll turn your too narrow row into a solid and unmanageable mat by fall.

If it doesn’t rain soon after planting water the plants-even if the soil is moist. Watering firms up the soil around the roots and eliminates air pockets near them that your big foot didn’t deal with.

Weeds & Water

When growing strawberries, have ambitious weed control goals the first months after planting. Use your garden tiller. Use your hoe. Get on your hands and knees. Be vigilant. Weed, weed, and weed! You will be rewarded by easy to weed strawberry beds in the future if you vigorously police weeds now, when it’s easy.

In late May your plants will flower and set fruit. Some suggest picking the flowers or young berry clusters. If your plants were vigorous at planting don’t bother. Spend your time weeding – or fishing – in that order. Good plants begin setting strong runners by mid-June. Runners should make you smile. They bear the embryo of next year’s harvest.

A good mother plant may easily send out six daughters. You might try arranging them into the row occasionally but the daughters, like all children, go their own way.

Whatever you do don’t let your plants dry out.

I have overhead movable sprinklers for strawberries and other crops, say for instance if you are growing garlic or thinking about how to grow corn. They work fine. Drip irrigation doesn’t work well. The lines get entwined in the beds and hinder renovation.

Keep weeding and watering until autumn frosts freeze everything that photosynthesizes. During a dry fall I’ll water one last time before the ground freezes even though photosynthesis has been shut down for a while.

Winter Mulch

Where I live the ground freezes by early November. We cover our berry beds with a couple inches of straw or round-baled meadow hay in late October. We do this not to protect the plants from freezing. The mulch keeps them from drying out if there is no snow cover. More importantly it protects the crowns from the expanding and contracting soil as it thaws, freezes, and thaws in the spring. Failure to protect the crowns from this frost heaving may destroy them. Everybody mulches. You’ve got to learn how to lay mulch to protect your precious plants.

For a mulch we prefer a grass such as reed canary. It has less weed seeds than straw. The bindweed in our fields came in with a neighbor’s oat straw. Round-baled hay or straw is easier to break apart and fluff up than square bales.

The longer you wait to uncover your plants in the spring the longer you’ll wait for strawberry flowers. This can be good. Or bad. If you keep the straw on longer you might miss a damaging frost. If you pull the straw off as soon as the ground is done with its spring freezing and thawing cycle you’ll get berries earlier. I wait. But I always uncover the plants when I see the early signs of new growth under the mulch.

Strawberry plants look horrid after a winter under mulch and snow. Don’t despair. Clean up the aisles to fourteen to eighteen inches wide. Get your beds about 18 inches wide. The plants will do the rest. Trust nature.

Frost Protection

But keep your eyes on the thermometer.

If your plants are flowering or have green fruit and the thermometer is dipping toward freezing you better have been ready a long time ago.

I actually like getting up at mid-night, walking through the woods to my berry patch, and checking the thermometer. I like going back at 1:00 a.m. and again at 2:00 a.m. to turn on the sprinklers because the mercury is now at 33°F. I like standing in the dark and listening to the sprinklers start to hiss and click. I don’t mind turning the sprinklers off at 7:30 a.m. as the last ice melts from the flower clusters. It’s a pleasant way to spend a night. What I do mind is working all day after that. And I do mind pumping 10,000 gallons of water on a field that doesn’t need it. Besides, the charm of hooting owls wears off the second night of frost.

We purchased 1,000 feet of six-foot wide heavy plastic film eight years ago. It doesn’t wear out if you halfway take care of it. If we anticipate a frost we cover the plants at dusk. If you don’t want to use plastic try straw-but you’ll need lots of it. And plastic is a lot easier to put on, take off, and put on as that grueling four-night cold snap rolls through at the end of May. Even though, sometimes I miss those crisp spring walks under the full moon.

Summer Mulch-Bugs

Straw is used to mulch the aisles. Tuck it under the leaves and flower clusters that should be hanging into the aisle. Tuck it into the beds where berries might get splashed with soil. We try to leave a little straw from the winter in the beds, making sure it doesn’t cover plants. You’ll need more for the aisles. Mulch in the aisles will give you brief weed control, it will add organic matter, and it will make for pleasant picking.

Just after the first big king berry blossoms open the clipper beetle may strike your patch. Actually it’s a black weevil 1/16-inch long. Ms. Clipper spends her winters in the woods and before you came she fed her babies on wild strawberry pollen. Yours is better and more plentiful. She finds your clusters of flower buds. She inserts an egg into the bud. She girdles the bud so it’s hanging by a thread. And she moves on to the next bud… and the next.

Clippers can destroy your crop. We’re still learning but I think you can keep ahead of them by removing and burning the buds they’ve clipped as you do your spring weeding. It’s tedious work and if you are planning an acre size strawberry patch you’ll have to find another solution. On the other hand you may have no clippers because they’re all in my patch.

Another strawberry bug bad guy is the tarnished plant bug. I’ve not had serious problems but I understand they are the cause of nubby berries.

Marketing Time

You’ve been weeding, watering, mulching, and protecting your strawberries for a year. It’s pay off time. Give the first ripe berry to a beloved friend. Mash the second one with your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Feel the red sweetness spread to each cell on your tongue. Now put your marketing plan into effect.

Oh! You don’t have one? You were too busy growing berries? Well it’s too late now. You should have been ready two months ago.

Here are some marketing questions:

  • Who are your customers?
  • Are they going to pick the berries? Or will you?
  • How much will you charge if they pick? How much if you pick?
  • Will you charge by the quart? The pound? The ice cream pail?
  • Do you have containers to put berries in?
  • What does your competition do?

Here are some marketing answers:

  • Line up customers in the winter or spring. They should be waiting for your call.
  • We do both we-pick and U-pick. It gives us flexibility.
  • In 2000 we charged 95 cents/lb. for U-pick and $1.35/lb. if we picked. Check with other berry growers and the University Extension Service for local prices. If you charge by the pound weigh the container before it’s full.
  • Occasionally pickers bring containers. We pick in cardboard beer flats from the local liquor store. They are shallow and the berries don’t get crushed.

You should be able to pick through your berries three to five times before the fruit becomes too small to be commercially valuable. We juice the last berries.

Renovation

Renovation is a hard thing. Who wants to cut their strawberry plants down? Tilling fewer than 90% of the plants is enough to break any gardener’s heart. But you’ve got to be strong. Failure to renovate properly will leave you with an unmanageable mat of strawberries that will choke itself. Get to it right after harvest. It takes six weeks for runners from your renovated bed to become mature plants.

We use a scythe to cut the leaves off. A rotary lawnmower will work if it is raised as high as possible. After cutting, till the bed until it is just one or two plants wide. To do this systematically you will begin tilling on one edge and gradually move into the center of the bed where last year’s mother plants are. You should till up those old mothers and keep the last few of their vigorous daughters on the far edge of the bed. These plants will form the nucleus of the new bed.

Your first strawberry season is now complete. Relax.  Good luck growing strawberries next season!

Originally published in 2006

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