Strawberry shortcake, strawberry ice cream, strawberries and cream, chocolate-covered strawberries. These sweet fruits are the favorite of many dessert-avores, and they can be a favorite money-maker for strawberry farms. The market for strawberries sold locally and grown naturally can turn small scale farmers’ attention to putting in strawberry fields, growing strawberries for profit and for pleasure.
Strawberry Farming In The U.S.
Strawberries are the fifth most preferred fresh fruit in the United States—behind bananas, apples, watermelon and grapes—so there is a large market for strawberries and opportunities for U-pick farms. As of 2012, the U.S. was the world’s largest producer of strawberries, producing more than 36 billion pounds and accounting for 29 percent of the total world’s strawberry production, according to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. The U.S. strawberry industry is centered in the southern and coastal areas of California, with Florida and Oregon being the second and third top strawberry farming states, but strawberries can be grown anywhere with the right care.
Not all strawberries are created equal. The first think to consider when putting in your strawberry fields is what strawberry varieties you’d like to try. Here are some of the major types to get your must-plant list started.
- June-Bearing Strawberries: Also known as spring-bearing strawberries, this type produces fruit in the spring for two to three weeks. June-bearers are classified into early, mid-season and late varieties and produce runners with daughter plants at the tips that will root and produce additional strawberry plants. Earligrow, Delmarvel and Allstar are three June bearing strawberry varieties to know.
- Everbearing Strawberries: These plants produce smaller berries than June-bearing plants. They produce flowers and fruit in three periods: spring, summer and fall. Everbearing strawberries are good for small-space gardeners and urban farmers because they do not produce runners, rather the plant stays compact and tidy. Everbearing strawberry varieties include Quinalt, Albion and Seascape.
- Day-Neutral Strawberries: Also on the smaller side, these strawberries produce fruit throughout the growing season and are free of runners. Tristar and Tribute are two popular day-neutral strawberry varieties.
- Alpine Strawberries: These sweet, dime-sized strawberries range in color from red to white and fruit all summer. They don’t produce runners, so they’re good for container gardening and small spaces. Try Mignonette, Alexandria and Rugen varieties.
- Musk Strawberries: While these tall plants that create a thick ground cover, they’re not prolific strawberry producers. The strawberries are small and pungent. You can improve the yield of musk strawberries by adding male plants to your strawberry fields every two years. Musk strawberry varieties include Capron and Rosea.
Ways To Grow Strawberries
Strawberry farms are diverse because there are many different ways to grow strawberries. Your fields will likely look different than the fields of your neighbors’ strawberry farms. Here are some different planting methods so you can find the way that works best for you.
This method is best for growing June-bearing strawberry cultivars, according to the University of Illinois Extension. Set strawberry plants 18 to 30 inches apart in rows that are 3 to 4 feet apart. Allow daughter plants produced by runners to root freely within a 2-foot-wide space to create a matted row.
You can limit number of daughter plants that can grow from the runners of a mother plant using this method. With strawberry plants planted 18 to 30 inches apart in rows that are 3 to 4 feet apart, allow daughter plants to root no closer than 4 inches apart. Pull or cut all other runners and daughter plants from the mother plants. You will see higher yields, larger berries and fewer disease problems than in the matted-row strawberry growing system.
Day-neutral strawberries and everbearing strawberries thrive best in this growing method. Remove all runners so only the original mother plant remains and develops more crowns and flower stalks, therefore yielding more fruit. Arrange rows in groups of two to four plants with a 2-foot walkway between each group of rows. Plant strawberry plants 1 foot apart in multiple rows.
Container gardening is an option for strawberries grown for home use. Choose compact varieties that don’t need to spread out. A self-watering growing container is an ideal container for growing strawberries indoors or outdoors. A piece of roof gutter mounted to your deck railing, the side of your house or the side of your garden shed is a creative container option. There are also traditional strawberry pots, which allow multiple plants to grow in the same pot or allow one plant to send out runners to root around the pot.
Hydroponically grown strawberries are not commonly found in the U.S., according to the University of Arizona, but there are benefits to growing strawberries without soil. The nutrient solutions can be recycled to save water and reduce fertilizers, there is no soil to harbor diseases, and growing strawberries in a greenhouse allows you to keep out insect pests that can damage the plants.
A few strawberry varieties can be grown from seed, but you might have more success starting with dormant, bare-root plants from nurseries and seed companies. Transplant individual plants to the same depth they grew in their containers. Spread out bundled plants, trim off dead leaves and roots, and transplant so the base of the crown rests at the soil line and the roots are spread out. Mulch between all strawberry plants with pine needles, chopped leaves or plastic sheet mulch.
Strawberries like acidic (pH 5.5 to 6.8), well-drained soil that is high in organic matter. Before planting strawberries, apply compost or a fertilizer balanced in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium; incorporate the amendment 6 to 8 inches into the soil. The University of Illinois Extension suggests fertilizing strawberries again after the first harvest of the second season. Strawberries need 1 inch of water per week during the growing season.
In USDA hardiness zone 6 and northward, plant strawberries as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring—as much as six weeks before your last frost—so the plants can become well-established before hot summer weather. In zone 7 and south, you can plant in the fall. Planting strawberries is best done on a cloudy day or during the late afternoon because young strawberry plants can easily dry out when exposed to the sun and wind. Choose a spot in full sun—at least six hours, but ideally eight hours or more, per day.
When rotating crops, do not plant strawberries where plants in the nightshade family—peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes—have grown because nightshades can harbor verticillium wilt, a disease affecting strawberries.
If birds find your strawberries, cover the plants with bird netting so they can’t eat them all.
In winter in cold climates, mulch strawberries with 3 to 4 inches of straw in the winter to protect them from the elements. In early spring, remove the mulch but keep it handy—or use floating row cover—to cover tender blossoms before a spring frost.
June-bearing strawberries need flowers to be removed in their first year to promote root and runner development and have a better harvest next year. Renovate June-bearing strawberries after harvest every year to ensure the plants keep producing for three or four years: Mow the old strawberry foliage to 1 to 4 inches above the strawberry plant crown. Cut back the strawberry rows to 6 to 12 inches wide with a hoe or tiller, then weed, thin strawberry plants to 4 to 6 inches between plants, fertilize, and keep watered with 1 inch of water per week to encourage plant and runner regrowth.
Everbearing strawberry plants and day-neutral strawberry plants should have flowers removed until the end of June every year to have a stronger strawberry harvest for the rest of the growing season.
Harvest strawberries in the morning, when the fruits are cool, and immediately refrigerate them. Keep a short stub of green stem attached, and don’t remove the green cap or wash the berries until you’re ready to eat them.
U-Pick Strawberry Farms
Agritourism is becoming a popular pastime for families and for people interested in where their food comes from. Opening your strawberry fields to the public as a U-pick strawberry farm allows you to sell your strawberries without harvesting effort on your part and brings people onto your farm to purchase other, value-added strawberry products, like jams, jellies, baked goods and more. Hosting a strawberry festival creates an instant market for strawberries, and you don’t even have to leave your property. Starting a U-pick strawberry farm is not as simple as putting out a sign, of course, because there are marketing, legal and other business issues to tend to, but if having a strawberry farm is what you’re after, a U-pick strawberry farm is an option.
The strawberry is one of the most labor-intensive row crops to grow, but it can be more profitable per acre than many other crops. Starting a strawberry farm gives you the opportunity to grow a delicious crop and share it with the community.
About the Author: Freelance writer Lisa Munniksma eats a lot of strawberries when they’re locally in-season and blogs about ag news and opinion at “The News Hog.”