Have you made plans to celebrate all of the Big Three May holidays? Those, of course, would be Mother’s Day (May 13), Memorial Day (May 28), and Pick Strawberries Day (May 20). Yes, the third one in the list is an official holiday, and many of us get the day off since it happens to fall on a Sunday this year.
As a former pick-your-own strawberry patch owner from Minnesota, selecting May 20th to celebrate these delectable fruits seems to be jumping the gun. We typically picked our first berries in June. After all, the most common type of strawberries are called Junebearers! But for those of you in more southerly climes, May is indeed strawberry month. This year I would have had some berries by now in my Des Moines garden if I had taken precautions to protect the blossoms from a late April freeze. Instead, the potential early fruits succumbed to cold, so I’ll have to wait until next week to harvest the first fruits of the season. (They’re beginning to show a tinge of color.)
My favorite strawberry for flavor is ‘Earliglo’. It’s deep red, sweet and firm. I also grow ‘Tristar’, a day-neutral type that bears throughout the summer and fall. My Grandpa Schrock had a saying, “God could have made a better berry than strawberries, but He didn’t!” Which variety is your favorite?
June used to be strawberry season. It still is in much of the northern part of the country. After all, most strawberry varieties are called June-bearers. But consumers have grown accustomed to having strawberries available year round from warm-climate commercial fruit farms.
I have nothing against commercial fruit farms. I used to own and operate one, which included five acres of strawberries. But we didn’t ship the berries thousands of miles across the country. They all were harvested for local consumption. And the season ran only from early June through early July. Then, we had no more strawberries for the rest of the year, except ones from the freezer. As the strawberry season wound down, we shifted to raspberry harvest, then to apples.
It’s tough to beat the flavor of a locally-grown strawberry. My grandpa Schrock used to say, “God could have made a better berry than a strawberry, but He didn’t!” You can experience that delectable home-grown flavor by planting a few strawberries in your yard, or even in a strawberry jar on your patio or balcony.
Variety selection for strawberries is highly regionally dependent, so it’s worthwhile checking with local garden centers or your cooperative extension service to discover which types are recommended for your locale. One of my favorites for flavor (in the Upper Midwest) is Earliglow. In my own yard, I extend the strawberry season by also growing Tristar, a day neutral strawberry variety that produces a smaller harvest in June, but continues to bear throughout the summer. I also grow three types of raspberries, but because I no longer have acres to harvest, I can manage to pick strawberries AND raspberries in July!
Usually by the middle of November my strawberries are safely snuggled under several inches of mulch, ready for winter cold and snow. But this year has been so mild that I’m holding off with the final covering until we get a few nights down around 20 degrees F. As I was trimming back perennials I scattered a light later of ornamental grass stems over the berry plants. The strawberry leaves are turning red, indicating that they’re going into dormancy, but I’ll wait for the final blanket of mulch until the ground has a thin frozen crust.
Years ago when I ran a commercial pick-your-own strawberry farm, I used chopped cornstalks to mulch the 5-acre berry patch because cornstalks were available essentially for free from nearby farmland, and my uncle Troy, who felt sorry for a poor struggling beginning farmer, gave me a good deal on his labor for chopping and stacking. It took a couple of weeks of long, hard labor to mulch the entire commercial patch, but it won’t take long to finish covering my 150-square-foot home garden patch of berries. When real November weather finally arrives, I’ll cut back the rest of my grasses and use the cut stems for additional mulch. If you don’t have enough ornamental grasses to provide all the mulch that you need, weed-free straw is another good option. Avoid the temptation to pile on fallen leaves, however. They mat down and smother the berry plants.
Next spring you’ll enjoy the fruits of your labor. Remember to rake the mulch away from the crowns when temperatures warm into the 70s for several days in a row (usually late March or early April here in central Iowa). Leave a couple of inches of mulch on the ground near the plants to keep the developing fruits off the soil. The berries will remain cleaner and more disease-free. Pictured at right are some Earliglo strawberries from my backyard patch. They’re one of my favorite varieties for flavor. What varieties grow best where you live?