Harvesting sweet strawberries from your own garden is a special treat. With these tips on planting and care, growing them will succeed.
Origin of the strawberry
Strawberries (Fragaria) belong to the rose family (Rosaceae) and thus belong to the same plant family as apples, cherries, quinces and many other types of fruit. Ornamental shrubs such as the shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), the firethorn (Pyracantha) and the meadowsweet (Spiraea) also belong to this family. Typical for the plant family are the relatively simple flowers with five petals. The natural distribution area of strawberries extends across America, Europe and Asia. The ancestors of the cultivated strawberry originate from America: in the middle of the 18th century, the North American wild common strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) and the Chilean strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) came to Europe. At that time, a cross between the two species resulted in the so-called pine strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa) – a hybrid that is considered the original form of today’s garden strawberries. A variety of the wild woodland strawberries (Fragaria vesca) are the Alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca var. semperflorens), which bloom from May to October and bear fruit continuously. For this reason, they are now called everbearing strawberries. Of the approximately 1,000 strawberry varieties worldwide, around 100 are grown, predominantly the once-bearing garden strawberries.
Look and growth
Strawberries are perennial plants, which due to their way of life are categorized as perennials. The flowers and fruits form on long herbaceous stems near the ground. The three- to five-petaled, rich green leaves stand in a rosette. After a cold stimulus, umbels of small white flowers appear, which, depending on the variety, are clearly or barely visible in the foliage. Since the fruit of the strawberry is an accessory fruit and the actual seeds show up as small yellow nutlets on the outside of the fruit, the fruits of the strawberries belong to the so-called nut fruits. So instead of a berry, the strawberry is a nut.
Planting and care of strawberries
Location and soil
Strawberry plants thrive best in full sun locations. The more sun the little plants get, the sweeter the fruits will be. The site should be somewhat sheltered from the wind, but not completely windless, so that the foliage dries again as quickly as possible after rainfall and leaf diseases cannot gain a foothold so easily. Locations prone to late frost are unsuitable, as the flowers freeze easily here.
The soil should be loose and not too heavy, deep and rich in humus, and the pH value should ideally be between 5.5 and 6.5, i.e. in the slightly acidic to acidic range. Root diseases develop more easily in compacted soils, so it is important to loosen them up with leaf compost or sand before planting and prepare them for the sun-hungry berries with a green manure. As a rule, do not use conventional compost from the garden for strawberries. It is too rich in salt and lime and therefore unsuitable for the salt-sensitive perennials.
Proper soil preparation is the basis for a good harvest: dig the soil deeply with a digging fork and then work in four to five liters of humus or leaf compost and about 30 grams of horn meal flat per square meter with a cultivator. Two weeks after bed preparation, the soil will have settled to the point where you only need to rake the bed smooth. Then you can plant the strawberries.
Crop rotation and mixed culture
Strawberries produce the highest yield in the second and third year after planting. After that, the yield and also the quality of the fruit continuously decrease. So you should change the bed and plant new seedlings or own cuttings. Strawberries, like most rose plants, are very sensitive to replanting – that is, you should not plant new strawberries in a bed where strawberries have stood for at least four years to avoid soil fatigue and prevent soil pests such as nematodes. Vegetables with a short cultivation period, for example kohlrabi, lettuce and radishes, are ideal as previous crops. Garlic is also a good partner in a mixed culture with strawberries. Onions protect strawberry plants from fungal diseases. Lupines or crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum), for example, can be used as green manure.
When to plant strawberries depends on what kind of strawberries they are. As a general rule, two months before planting, improve the soil with leaf compost and – if available – rotted cow manure. As a rule, from July then young strawberry plants are available in stores. The best time for planting garden strawberries begins in the middle of the month and ends in August – then they give a good yield already in the first year of standing. Multiple-bearing varieties can be planted in the ground from August to September, while monthly and climbing strawberries are best planted in the spring.
The distance between the rows should be with at least 60 cm (24 in), that is, enough so that you can comfortably harvest the fruit. In the row, 25 to 30 cm (10 to 12 in) planting distance is sufficient. Plants should be planted deep enough to keep the heart of the plants above the soil surface. For bare-root young plants, make sure that the roots enter the soil vertically and well spread out. They should not be bent.
Single-bearing, large-fruited strawberry varieties are preferably planted in summer
If you want to harvest fruit with a high yield, you need to replant strawberry varieties after two to three years at the latest. The best time to plant new strawberry plants is in July and August. In summer, the young plants form their valuable deep roots. The better they take root, the stronger the plant will develop, and the more fruitful the strawberries will be the next year. It is common to combine different varieties to extend the harvest season of the single-bearing plants, which fruit for a maximum of two weeks. Therefore, for the optimal planting date, you can once again distinguish by ripening time. The earlier early strawberries are planted, the more time they have to grow into strong plants. Also, multiple bearing varieties are planted in July and August.
What to do if you missed the summer planting time?
In the spring, the store offers potted seedlings that you can plant between March and May. These strawberry plants provide a first harvest, albeit modest, in the same year. Plants cultivated for spring planting have the advantage that you can better plan the rows of beds in the kitchen garden. In the summer, the areas are usually still occupied by vegetables, and on the ancestral bed of strawberries should be replanted no earlier than three years.
Buying young strawberry plants in a pot
When choosing plants, there are three options. The first is pre-grown young plants in pots. You can buy them everywhere in the spring. However, they are usually quite small. These plants are sensitive to frost, so do not put them in the bed too early and, if necessary, protect them from the cold. Usually, however, the harvest in the first year is not yet abundant.
Determine the harvest time yourself with frost plants
The second option is to buy so-called frost plants. These are already a year old, were dug up last fall and have overwintered in a cold store. At about 0 °C / 32 °F, these plants can continue to store in your own refrigerator and can be planted as desired: It takes about ten to twelve weeks from planting to harvesting the first ripe fruit.
Planting time is late April to mid-June. You can extend the strawberry season by staggered planting. However, this works only in the first year, when the plants remain in the bed. Important: Frost plants already have very long, strong roots, so they need a deep planting hole. Plant deep enough so that the heart of the plant remains above the soil surface.
Multiple bearing varieties: strawberries for the balcony.
Option three is multiple bearing varieties. These can also be bought in pots in the spring and then planted in the bed. However, they do not bear many and rather small fruits. But they bloom two or three times a year. Therefore, these varieties are more suitable for balcony or terrace. These varieties also have very pretty flowers. Do not plant the strawberries in normal potting soil, it contains too much artificial fertilizer. Organic garden soil, on the other hand, is recommended.
When to plant wild and woodland strawberries?
Wood strawberries and their cultivated form of wild strawberries, which usually grows on a cluster, are best planted in the spring until the beginning of May and from mid-August to the end of September. These strawberries can stand in the same place for a long time without becoming exhausted.
Unlike garden strawberries, the small species that fruit for months are rarely cultivated in rows. Varieties that form abundant tendrils, are even suitable as fruit-bearing ground cover. To do this, leave the runners on the plant. With an initial planting of four to five plants per square meter, the strawberry meadow will grow outward by about 50 cm / 20 in each year all by itself.
Planting homegrown strawberry cuttings in the summer.
Of the favorite varieties, of course, you can grow your own seedlings. Already in late May, early June, strawberry mother plants begin to form offshoots. As soon as they begin to root, you separate them and grow them individually in pots. To avoid later shock when transplanting, many amateur gardeners swear by cultivating them in place in small pots until they are large enough for cutting the offshot. Secure the strawberry cuttings, which have been placed in containers with growing soil, with a bent wire or hairpin. After three to four weeks, the offspring have usually rooted the root zone intensively and are ready for transplanting.
Care tips for strawberries
To avoid mistakes in the care of strawberries, you should know: Especially during the phase of growing and dry weather, the plants need a lot of water. In addition, when caring for strawberries, it is important to regularly clear the soil of weeds. This can be done in the year of planting by careful hoeing. After that you should refrain from mechanical tillage and instead mulch the bed with dried lawn clippings. This will keep weeds from growing. By mulching your strawberries with straw starting in early May, you will protect the delicate fruit from moisture and gray mold infestation. In addition, the fruit resting on the ground will remain clean and weeds will continue to be suppressed.
After harvesting, the straw should be put aside again. You now cut off the leaves of strawberries and remove all the offshots that you do not need for propagation. The old foliage is usually infected with fungal diseases and therefore must be carefully removed from the bed. The same applies to weeds that have grown. Use a single tine cultivator to loosen the soil between the rows, which has been compacted by the harvest. Then spread organic berry fertilizer around each plant, followed by mulching with leaf compost. When doing this, feel free to bury the cut plants so that only the tips of the cut leaf stalks are visible. As a rule, you fertilize strawberries only after the harvest, because from then until the fall, the new flower buds are created for the coming strawberry season, for which the plants need a lot of nutrients.
Once and twice bearing strawberry varieties grown outdoors, unless there is extreme cold, do not require special protection during the winter. However, strawberries kept as container plants must be provided with winter protection in good time and moved to a sheltered place, for example, a covered house wall. In case of permafrost, bring them indoors for protection.
Strawberries as a potted plant
Especially everbearing strawberry varieties, which produce fruit until October, can be cultivated very well in planters. The small and aromatic fruits of these varieties hang in the air instead of resting on the ground.
If you want to grow raspberry or pine strawberries in a pot, a tub with a diameter and depth of about 20 cm / 8 inch is sufficient. From the smaller pine strawberry fit about three plantlets in such a pot. Potted strawberries in the first year, as a precaution, overwinter frost-free in a cool, dark place and do not forget to water. Somewhat larger pots, tubs and balcony boxes with water drainage holes are well suited for planting. Add potting soil with organic fertilizer to the planters and place the planted containers in a full sun location. In the fall, cut back the plants so they will bear fruit for two more years.
Harvest and use
Once-bearing garden strawberries are usually ripe for picking in June. During harvest, the plants can be harvested two to three times a week. If varieties with different ripening times are grown next to each other in the bed, the season for fresh strawberries can be extended somewhat. Strawberries bloming a second time are ready for harvest several times a year, but they are not as productive as garden strawberries.
Because strawberries are very sensitive to pressure and can only be stored for a short time, they should be eaten or processed as fresh as possible, for example, to make strawberry jam, smoothies or sauce. You can also freeze strawberries, although they are somewhat mushy after thawing. Freezing has proven to be particularly useful for processing the fruit into jam later on. This tastes even usually more aromatic than jam from fresh strawberries.
Strawberries propagate by offshoots, which in turn continue to multiply by new leaf rosettes and new offshoots. Thus, if left unintervened, a dense carpet of plants will develop over time. Most strawberry varieties have hermaphroditic flowers and can self-pollinate. For purely female varieties it is necessary to plant a pollinator variety nearby.
Garden strawberries in particular, which form offshoots, are easily propagated by cuttings: The offshoots can be taken off and potted or placed in the ground right away. When doing this, be sure to propagate only healthy mother plants. Selection is important: During harvest, mark the plants that bear the most abundantly with labels and grow daughter plants only from these in small pots filled with soil. After rooting, you can separate the offshoots from the mother plant. But note that strawberries grown from offspring degenerate more and more with time. Therefore, after each self-propagated generation, it makes sense to refresh the stock with purchased young plants. These are now grown exclusively by the so-called meristem propagation. The advantage of this method is that you get very healthy young plants that are free of nematodes and pathogens.
Wild strawberries do not form offshoots and are therefore propagated by sowing. In February to March, scatter seeds thinly in seed trays or planting containers filled with growing soil. Sprinkle the seeds only lightly with soil and moist it. Ideal for germination is a bright place with about 17 to 20 °C / 63 to 68 °F. Keep the pots moderately moist. Once the seedlings have set five leaves, the plantlets can be pricked out into individual pots and continue to keep them evenly moist. After about ten weeks, the seedlings are fertilized and then planted out from the beginning of May with a spacing of about 25 cm / 10 inches. In the first year, the harvest will still be small, but from next year strawberries will bear fruit abundantly.
You can also obtain the seeds of the monthly strawberries yourself by crushing the fully ripe fruits and mixing them with water. After a few hours, the suspended matter will have settled with the seeds and they are poured off. After they have dried for a few days, you can easily separate the seeds from the fruit remains with your fingers.