Strawberries aren't just delicious; they're a breeze to grow with these tips.
By Nzong XiongMore in Outdoors
Michelle Guardado's garden already was overflowing with roses, ferns, morning glories and sweet peas when she went shopping one spring morning at Riverside Landscape & Nursery Supplies in Fresno, Calif.
She had no intention of growing strawberries in the backyard of her Fresno home. But then she came across bare-root strawberry plants on sale: 25 plants for $5. She just couldn't pass up the bargain. "I figured why not?," says Guardado. "I will try just about anything."
She had grown strawberries before, but in pots, when she was single and in college and didn't have much room. Married and with a house of her own, it was time to grow berries in all that ground she now had for a garden. After putting her bare-root plants in the ground and giving them lots of water, Guardado left them to grow on their own. And they thrived. Berries are easy to grow, she says: "I don't try, and I have strawberries."
Actually, she does try a little. But because of her busy schedule as a litigation attorney, Guardado weeds when she finds time and fertilizes when she remembers to (although she does try to work fertilizer into the soil each August or early spring).
For the most part, she grows strawberries because they are pretty and edible, she says. She doesn't make things with her strawberries, preferring to nibble if it strikes her fancy while tending to the garden. She does not recall the precise variety of those original bare-root berry plants, but she suspects they're everbearing, meaning they yield fruit over a long season.
Unlike commercial growers, home gardeners do not get a wide variety of strawberry plants to choose from unless they order from a catalog, says Richard Molinar, farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Fresno.
Strawberries are sold in nurseries as bare-root, dormant plants or six-packs of plants already growing.
Bare-root plants leaf within a couple of weeks of planting, says Mike Ravicchio, owner of Evergreen Garden Center in Clovis, Calif. They are usually available in fall and from January through mid-February.
Six-packs, which resemble egg cartons, often are sold in late February or spring. Bare roots tend to be cheaper. There also are three basic ways to grow strawberries: in pots, especially if space is limited; in the ground; and in raised beds, the method experts prefer.
The primary reason for planting strawberries on raised beds is for drainage. "They don't like a lot of sitting water," Molinar says. "So, they like to be on beds and not on flat ground." It's also easier to protect them from heat, which is a big problem in pots.
Molinar recommends gardeners use a complete fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro, which has all the nutrients plants need. Fertilizer must be worked into the ground before planting and will be needed monthly after that. However, he cautions, "Don't put too much on because it could burn the roots."
Guardado doesn't cover the ground around her plants with plastic, although Molinar recommends it "to keep the fruit from touching the ground where the fungus is." Botrytis, or gray mold, is one common fungus growers should be wary of. "It sits on the berries and causes them to rot," Molinar says.
Affected leaves or rotting fruit should be removed immediately to prevent spread of any disease or fungus. Another enemy of strawberries is extreme heat. Warm weather is great for strawberries, but once the temperature goes higher than 85 degrees, the berries suffer, Molinar says.
To provide some shade, Molinar suggests using floating row covers, made from a white cotton-like fabric, available at most nurseries. Growers can use the covers in February, March or when they plant in spring.
As for pests – slugs, snails and sow bugs – use chemical bait, say the experts; bait costs between $3.99 for 2 pounds and $8 for 5 pounds at some stores. Put the bait in the corner of raised beds and away from the berries. That will help keep the fruit from getting contaminated, says Sandy Penner, garden coordinator for Garden of the Sun, a demonstration garden at the Discovery Center in Fresno. But be careful with the bait if you have pets around.
Where strawberries grow, weeds will also spring up. So be prepared to weed, warns Molinar, and to use black plastic atop the soil to keep down the weeds and to give the berries a dry, fungus-free place to lie.
Guardado says fear of a little weeding is no excuse for not planting strawberries. "It's a pain to do," she says about weeding, "but if you're remotely keeping up with them, it's not that bad. Growing strawberries is easy. Everybody should grow them."
Nzong Xiong writes for the Fresno Bee.