Splendid Strawberries For Every Garden
Strawberries are among America’s favorite fruits, appearing in everything from salad dressings and cereals to toothpaste and lip balm. Since strawberries rank first on the list of foods that retain significantly high levels of pesticide residues, why not grow your own? You and your kids will love the way they taste, straight from the garden and warm from the sun. Many folks are so accustomed to the huge, tasteless, out-of-season hot-house berries found in supermarkets year round that the flavor of a fresh, locally grown berry comes as a stunning surprise.
Nothing, of course, is more local than our own backyard, unless it’s our own back deck. Haunted by herds of local deer, I plant edibles exclusively on my upper deck. Safely out of reach, pretty much everything flourishes in large containers. After some experimentation, I’ve found that strawberries do best in wide, relatively shallow tubs. I plant my berries in storage tubs with drainage and air holes cut into the sides and bottoms. Each holds about two cubic feet of soil, and a soil depth of 12-18 inches seems to please every kind of strawberry I’ve tried, from tiny alpines to plump June bearers.
Compost Builds Flavor
In the ground or in containers, strawberries grow best in well drained soil with lots of compost worked in. Compost mulch always improves fruit and vegetable crops because it helps plants build brix, the natural sugars that enhance all flavors, sweet and savory. Plant strawberries in early spring or fall, top dressing with compost and mulching with chopped straw or shredded leaves. (Don’t use plastic, since overly warm soil leads to smaller crops.) Mounded beds are best where springs are cool and soils are heavy. Allow one plant for each quart of berries you want to harvest. If succession bedding is practiced, strawberries should not follow nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplants and petunias) in order to avoid verticillium root rot.
Fertilize strawberries lightly for the biggest crops; too much promotes leaves, not fruit. Feed them with a balanced, mild fertilizer (5-5-5 is fine) a week after planting and every summer month, stopping in early August. Water regularly once plants begin to bloom, continuing until all fruit has been harvested. Since excess water makes for soft and bland fruit, water moderately: on most soils, an inch of water a week will be enough, but more may be needed in hot weather.
Keeping Yummy Crops Safe
For garden crops, use a safe, iron phosphate based bait such as Sluggo to keep slugs and snails away, tucking a few pellets next to each plant. Container plantings are rarely troubled, but if they are, the same treatment works perfectly. Where deer graze your berry plants, place slim bamboo BBQ skewers pointy-side-up between every plant to keep those tender noses out of the beds.
Since strawberries are low-growing, they can get swamped easily by vigorous weeds. Keep weeds controlled with a generous compost mulch, being sure not to smother the strawberry crowns when you spread it. Plant strawberries in spring or fall, placing each plant 12-18 inches apart, depending on size and vigor. Most strawberries are colonial plants. Each mother will send out long stems, each tipped with a tiny baby plantlet that will root where ever it touches ground.
No Crowding, Please
To keep a strawberry patch orderly, reset the babies in their own row, giving each plenty of room. Overcrowded offsets are more susceptible to molds and mildews, while those with good air circulation and lots of elbow room will form healthy new plants. When the original plants are old and woody, they can be discarded and the youngsters will take over.
I’m growing my few remaining Marshall strawberries in a wide, shallow pot. I didn’t let them set fruit this year, since they are yearlings, and they have already sent out numerous offshoots. To accommodate them, I placed a 4-inch pot under each baby, each with a deep saucer so they don’t dry out on hot days. When they size up, I’ll cut the umbilical cords and set them free.
Succeeding With Strawberries
In most climates, strawberries are easy to grow, wanting only full sun and good, pH neutral garden soil to crop abundantly. Plant as many kinds of strawberries as you can find room for, expending the season with early, midsummer, and late varieties. Plump, juicy June bearing strawberries produce a single crop and many runners, each of which can become a new plant. June bearers are often planted in wide beds and allowed to create new colonies after the fruit has been harvested. By planting early, mid, and late fruiting varieties, June bearers will fruit for about 4 weeks.
Though it feels counter-intuitive, it’s important not to let June bearers flower their first year. Pinch all flowers off newly planted everbearers and day-neutrals until July, then let them set fruit. Though the June strawberries won’t crop this first year, yields will be better next year and you’ll harvest for several years longer this way. To boost subsequent harvests, fan the runners out evenly and fasten them to the ground (use small stones or forked sticks) every 6 inches or so. Let the runners stay attached to the mother plant until fall, when they will be well-rooted and ready to be on their own.
Everbearing and day-neutral strawberries produce two to three flushes of fruit in bursts, from early summer into autumn. Both are good candidates for growing in strawberry pots near the kitchen. Longer lived than June bearers, they are less prolific with runners, so coddle those that do appear to replace your original plants which will exhaust themselves in a few seasons. It’s fun to seek out local and heritage strawberry varieties that perform well in your region.
Berries in The Kitchen
For best flavor, serve strawberries fresh and at room temperature. Refrigeration makes ripe strawberries taste flat, so use them the day they’re picked (and before they start to mold). Freeze fresh strawberries whole, in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Put them in tightly sealed containers and use them within three months.
For a quick and delicious dessert, serve freshly picked strawberries with a sprinkle of freshly ground nutmeg and brown sugar. Add a cupful of chopped strawberries to sourdough waffle or pancake batter. Garnish summery soups with sliced strawberries and slivered green onions. Add quartered strawberries to green salads and dress with a white balsamic vinaigrette.
Strawberry Breakfast Smoothies
1/2 cup ice cubes
1 pint ripe strawberries, hulled and cut in half
2 cups buttermilk (or any milk)
1-2 teaspoons maple syrup
2 teaspoons mint, finely chopped
pinch sea salt
Grind ice in a blender, add remaining ingredients and puree until creamy. Serve cold. Serves 2.
Strawberry Chard Salad
This summery salad is also lovely with raspberries or Loganberries.
8 leaves of Butterhead or Boston lettuce
1 cup golden Swiss chard, finely shredded
1/4 red onion, thinly sliced
12 fresh strawberries, sliced and fanned
1 teaspoon capers, drained
2-3 ounces fresh goat cheese
Fresh Strawberry Dressing (see below)
On four salad plates, arrange lettuce and top with chard and red onion. Fan berries on each plate and top with capers and goat cheese. Drizzle with dressing and serve. Serves 4.
Fresh Strawberry Dressing
Try this with black raspberries, or Marionberries too, and toss with mixed greens or a fruity salad.
1 cup strawberries, chopped
1/3 cup canola or rice oil
2 tablespoons white balsamic or cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
In a food processor, combine all ingredients and puree until smooth. Makes about 2/3 cup.