America has a love affair with strawberries. The United States is the world’s largest producer of strawberries, to the tune of 36 billion pounds every year, 80% of which get eaten fresh. No wonder: they are low in calories but high in nutrition, and packed full of flavor.
The popularity of the strawberry and its year-round availability have not been an unmixed blessing to strawberry lovers. Strawberry grower Driscoll’s has perfected the art of the giant red strawberry: a feast for the eyes. It has shaped American perception of what a strawberry is supposed to look like. Unfortunately, the giant berries in plastic quart clamshells in the mega grocery mart are often so pumped full of water, they taste very little like strawberries and more like a vague juicy sweetness.
If you grow strawberries at home, don’t expect 3″ long monsters of identical ripeness and shades of red. Your home grown strawberries will look more like the batch above. You’ll have some weird shapes and a variety of sizes and probably not everything will be uniformly bright red, especially if you grow them in the shade like I do. But your home grown strawberries will have a more intense taste because they aren’t so diluted with water.
Selecting a Variety
Fragaria × ananassa, the cultivar grown for commercial production, is a cross of the North American Fragaria virginiana and the South American Fragaria chiloensis. Unless specified otherwise, the varieties you see for sale will be this crossbreed, and it’s the one that you should grow for home food production in the South. I grow “Chandler” and “All-Star” and both are performing equally well. There are numerous other good quality varieties available.
Usually you want to select a “June Bearing” variety (although they fruit in May in Alabama) if you’d like a large harvest in the spring. “Everbearing” strawberries often produce a smaller crop in the spring, but then a second (even smaller) crop in the fall.
The easiest method of installing strawberries at home is a permanent raised bed. This has some disadvantages. It’s hard to keep the bed free of old leaf litter, which can promote disease and provide a haven for slugs and snails. Strawberries compete poorly against weeds and the beds need to kept well weeded. On the up side, once established strawberries will need minimal or no watering in the off season and will produce ample new plants to either extend your production or to share with others.
If using permanent beds, perform an annual winter cleaning on the bed. Remove excess plants and runners, trim and remove old leaves but leave the crowns intact in the ground, and vigorously root out persistent, difficult weeds. Finally, every few years revitalize the bed by pulling out all the crowns, spreading a layer of compost and carefully replanting the crowns with correct spacing. While your harvest the spring after revitalization may be smaller, in the long run it will help the bed stay productive and healthy.
Strawberries will perform well in containers, strawberry towers and hanging baskets. These help with the weed problem, but your strawberries will be less able to survive on their own and will need year-round attention. Strawberry towers in particular will require close supervision, watering and fertilizer, and are not immune to slugs. However they make harvesting easy, and are an attractive solution for small spaces and more formal gardens.
Commercial strawberry production is very different. If you want to grow strawberries to sell at market, here is some suggested reading.
Slugs are the #1 home strawberry problem. They nibble on berries and create wounds which attract ants who take advantage of the damage to feed on the berries as well. OMRI certified iron phosphate (Sluggo) slug and snail control is not without some problems, but remains the best chemical control for slugs. Careful timing of slug baits can reduce both your cost and potential side effects, while effectively protecting fruit. Spread bait as the green, unripe berries begin to form.
Reducing slug and snail habitat (like leaf litter), hand picking and trapping and baiting with beer are other control options that will work in smaller gardens.
Birds are also attracted to strawberries, but mostly for the water inside. Bird damage appears as a drilled deep hole in ripe berries. The first line of defense against birds is to provide a clean, filled bird bath. The birds will prefer that as a water source. For persistent birds who like to eat fruit, floating row cover like Agribon or DIY cover made from tulle physically protects the berries by hiding them from sight.
For fall planted strawberry crowns, you should get a harvest the following spring. Strawberries must be picked daily and do not ripen or improve after being picked, so only pick fully ripe berries. They also have a short shelf life and will begin to rot in a few days. You can extend this life by refrigerating picked berries immediately and not washing the berries until you are ready to eat them. If you have too many berries to eat fresh, they freeze well or can be made into refrigerator jam or canned jam and preserves.
Are Growing Strawberries a Good Choice for You?
Like all perennial crops, strawberries take up space all year round while providing a short harvest window. Whether or not you should give up space to this fruit depends on whether or not it will supplant space you need for growing an annual crop that may produce food for several months. During the season, there are several local farms which produce and sell strawberries at markets and roadside stands, so getting a fix of fresh, local strawberries is a small matter of getting to where the vendors are.
On the other hand, unlike most perennial crops, strawberries start returning on their investment rapidly, and there’s a good chance everyone in your family is a fan of these juicy red berries. They are easy to grow and one of the first crops that comes in that feels like summer. That makes them pretty special.
If you’ve got the room to devote to them, strawberries rarely disappoint.