How to Grow Delicious Strawberries You Can Eat Straight From Your Garden
No store-bought strawberry could ever taste as good as a sun-ripened one picked fresh from your own plants. Here's what you need to know to grow the juiciest, sweetest fruit.
Biting into sun-sweetened strawberries, still warm from the garden, is one of the best summer treats you can enjoy. Just a few rows of plants will fill your fruit bowl and freezer, even after you subtract the samples you sneak while picking them (better yet, smother a few in melted chocolate if your sweet tooth is calling). By growing several different varieties in your patch or in containers, you can enjoy a delicious bounty of sweet fruits from spring until the first frost in the fall. Use these tips to grow strawberries better than any you'll find at the store.
Best Types of Strawberries to Grow
The three main types of strawberries are June-bearing, everbearing, and day-neutral. June-bearing strawberries, such as 'Shuksan', grow well in Zones 6-10, but some varieties are better for your local conditions than others. Keep in mind that June-bearers will produce their crop earlier in warm climates, which means you could be eating berries in April.
In Zones 6-8 (except for hot, humid areas), everbearing or day-neutral strawberries may be your best bet. Everbearing types, such as 'Quinault', produce two crops (one in June and one in September). Day-neutral types, such as 'Tristar', will produce a continual but smaller crop from June to September. June-bearing varieties are often recommended for short-season northern gardens; they offer a bigger summer bounty than everbearers, but plants stop fruiting after the first harvest.
How to Plant Strawberries
No matter what type of strawberry you grow, select a spot in full sun (that gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight every day) for your bed that has moist, well-drained soil. Spade soil to a depth of 8-10 inches, working in plenty of compost or well-rotted manure.
You'll have the most success with new plants bought from a reputable nursery, rather than plants passed along from a friend's garden. Strawberry plants decrease in vigor after a few years, and they're susceptible to diseases, so it's best to start fresh, not with hand-me-downs. In fact, your whole bed should be replaced every four or five years.
Plant June-bearers in early spring in rows 4 feet apart, setting the plants 2 feet apart. The mother plants make plantlets on long stems called runners that root where they touch the ground. These will fill the rows and create a mat. Let them fill up a 2-foot-wide space, keeping room between the rows for access. For everbearing and day-neutral types, clip off those runners and only maintain the original plants.
And if you want to grow strawberries with a more exotic flair, Fragaria vesca, the little alpine strawberry (which comes in white or red fruit), is a delicacy in Europe. It's easy to grow in Zones 3-9, even in part shade. Keep the plants at least 2 feet apart, and the rows 3 to 4 feet apart. The plants don't produce plantlets, but they do reseed and create a high groundcover that puts out small, slim, sweet fruits throughout the season.
Strawberries need rejuvenating each year, which you can easily do with your lawnmower. After you've harvested, adjust the height of your mower blades to about 4 inches off the ground and mow over your patch a couple of times. If you can't mow the beds, cut each plant down to about an inch. Rake out the clipped plant parts, weed, remove baby plants that have hopped out of the bed, and lightly fertilize with an organic all-purpose blend.
Test Garden Tip: The first year of your strawberry bed, be brave and remove all flowers from the plants so they'll use their energy to establish a strong root system instead. Keep dreaming of next year's strawberry shortcake!
Straw mulch helps keep weeds down, moderates soil moisture, and keeps the berries from sitting in the mud. In winter, the straw acts like a blanket to keep the plants dormant until it really is time to start growing in spring. But be careful, because slugs and snails can lurk underneath the straw, just waiting to take slimy bites out of your precious fruits. Use an organic slug control if they become too much of a problem.
How to Grow Strawberries in Pots
Because they tend to have small root systems, growing strawberries in containers works well. Just like planting them in the ground, choose a spot with full sun. Potted strawberry plants will dry out quicker than those in a patch, so check on them every day to make sure the soil is consistently moist. Consider using a drip irrigation system for containers, set on a timer to make this task easier. Also, use a container with a drainage hole at the bottom so the plants aren't sitting in water. Day-neutral varieties are the best for growing in pots because they produce fewer runners (though everbearing plants will also work).
In the winter, you have two choices: You can dump the plant and the soil, then wash the pot and store it over the winter, replanting next year. Or keep watering the plants until late fall, then store the pot in an unheated garage or shed and let the plants go dormant (continue giving them a little water every week or so). After the last spring frost, bring the pot back to its sunny spot and let the plants grow.
How to Harvest Strawberries
When to harvest strawberries depends on the variety you're growing. June-bearing strawberries will start to ripen all at once, usually over a period of about three weeks. Everbearing strawberries will produce a few different crops; usually, one large harvest in spring, a few more berries over the summer, and another larger harvest in later summer or early fall. Day-neutral plants will produce berries continuously until the first fall frost.
Usually, the berries will be ready to harvest about 4-6 weeks after the plant blossoms. Only harvest berries that have fully turned red, and use a pair of scissors to trim the stems (don't pull the strawberries off the plants, or you could damage them). When the plants are producing fruit, check back on them every day so that none of the strawberries get overripe before picking.
Best Strawberry Varieties
When you're searching for strawberry plants, make sure you bring home the very best for your growing conditions. Each of these varieties is known for its delicious flavor and easy care.
'Baron Solemacher' Chefs savor this alpine for its intense taste. Because the berries are fragile, they're best eaten fresh from the patch.
'Earliglow' One of the earliest varieties to set fruit. Good fresh or frozen, the flavorful berries are sweet without adding sugar. Winter-hardy plants resist disease.
Fragaria chiloensis While most alpines won't wander, this wild one can send runners cascading even over rocks at the edge of a woodland garden.
'Giant Robinson' These huge, mouthwatering berries are impressive in a fruit bowl. The vigorous, heavy-yielding plants offer one long-lasting picking season each summer.
'Honeyoye' These firm and juicy berries are prized for their naturally sweet taste. Winter-hardy plants grow vigorously, producing one big crop of conical fruits each year.
'Pink Panda' Grow pretty 'Pink Panda' as an everblooming, edible ground cover in sun or partial shade.
'Pineapple Crush' Named for its distinct flavor, this alpine produces cream-yellow fruits the first year if seeds are sown early indoors.
'Redchief' These open plants reveal large, bright-red berries that remain firm for freezing and are adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions. They're also highly disease resistant.
'Sparkle' Recommended for northern gardens, this hardy variety withstands late spring frosts. The name describes the berries' bright sheen, and they're excellent fresh or frozen.
'Tribute' A day-neutral variety, producing berries recurrently from spring till fall frost. Fruits are bigger later in the season, and the plants are resistant to cold and many diseases.
'Tristar' Berry production never goes on holiday, thanks to this hardworking day-neutral variety that fruits from spring to frost.