By Lois Chaplin
The first taste of a garden-ripe strawberry may be all it takes to say, “I’m planting this!” Strawberries don’t ripen after picking, so only those that ripen on the plant achieve their full potential: flavor that reaches your nose. That taste summons the garden tools. It’s time to think about next year’s crop. Strawberries can be planted in the spring, but fall planting provides a head start so plants grow better the first year. Plants are available now, in local garden centers or via mail-order.
Growing strawberries at home is more informal than growing them in annual rows such as at a U-pick. At home, it’s more practical to treat them as the perennials they are, letting the plants fill in like a ground cover (called a matted row) and thinning the planting each year. If one can keep the matted rows fresh and weeded, the plants usually last three to five years. That cuts down on work and expense.
Good drainage and eight hours of full sun daily are key to growing strawberries. In heavy clay soils, a raised bed filled with good soil can provide drainage plants need. Containers work well, too, but harvests are measured by the handful, not basketful. Containers also offer a practical option to test varieties.
Of many varieties available, just a few are suited to Alabama’s climate. Earliglow, Cardinal, Chandler and Camerosa are popular “June-bearers,” a misnomer in Alabama because they start bearing in April and end about June. The flowers set during the cool of fall and late winter, so take good care of them after planting.
Prepare the ground by incorporating one part sand (in heavy clay soil) and one part compost or other organic matter by volume. Work in your favorite fertilizer. It can be organic or a chemical fertilizer, such as 10-10-10. If using manure, be sure it is fully composted. According to Doug Chapman, Alabama’s regional Extension agent for commercial horticulture in the Tennessee Valley, commercial growers who raise strawberries as annuals in rows start fertilizing in February or March and continue every week the plants are blooming. Home gardeners don’t have to be so precise, but strawberries are heavy feeders and will need some fertilizer during production. About 1/3 pound of 20-20-20 fertilizer dissolved in water is the liquid feed equivalent of what commercial growers apply.
Strawberry plants available now are rooted in small pots or as plugs; later in the season, they may be bare root. Space the plants at least 12 inches apart in rows at least 24 inches apart. New growth starts from a crown deep at the center of the plant; if covered with soil, the plant could rot. The crown should be completely above ground.
Water the plants thoroughly. Mulch the planting with 2 to 3 inches of pine straw or herbicide-free wheat straw. Mulch helps keep down weeds. In North Alabama, this also helps prevent the soil from freezing. Plants can be injured by temperatures below 20 F, or even killed by a long night into the teens, so be prepared to cover the plants with straw mulch or a layer of frost cloth.
The first fall after planting, there is room to plant onions or garlic between the strawberry plants. They won’t need the space between rows until they start sending out pegs, or suckers, in the summer. At the end of the summer, dig up and discard the original plants, but leave the rooted young pegs to renew the planting next year. Mulch bare areas with pine straw, and keep the bed weeded.
For information about pest control and other aspects of growing strawberries, Extension’s Chapman recommends the Southern Small Fruits Consortium at smallfruits.org. For region-specific information, contact a local Extension agent.