Come spring, brick-and-mortar garden shops as well as online nurseries typically roll out their strawberry plant stock. And home gardeners like me dutifully snap them up. But that’s not necessarily because spring’s the very best season to start one’s strawberries.
Justin Ballew is a commercial horticulture agent with Clemson University Cooperative Extension. He provides South Carolina growers with expertise on a variety of crops including strawberries. And, as it happens, we may be able to learn a thing or two from those bigger strawberry operations.
“One thing home gardeners do that’s very inconsistent with the commercial grower is related to planting date,” Ballew notes.
“Commercial growers are planting [June-bearing strawberries] in the fall—usually around the middle of October. And I see home growers planting first thing in the spring, about the time things start getting warm. So the plants that were planted in the fall have had all winter long to grow and develop. They’re going to bloom and yield a lot better than the plants that are planted early in the spring.”
As a result, those growers are able to start harvesting as early as the end of March. The picking continues through April, most of May and sometimes into June.
June-Bearing & Beyond
When shopping for strawberry plants, you’ll likely see some described as June-bearing. Others may be designated as ever-bearing or day neutral.
“The day neutrals will produce just about year-round,” Ballew says. June-bearers, on the other hand, fruit heavily in the spring. And, as the weather warms, June-bearers stop producing blooms and instead spend their energy on vegetative growth.
Many commercial operations grow June-bearers like Chandler, Camarosa, Sweet Charlie and Ruby June as annuals—even though the plants are, technically, biennials. “Strawberry plants will hang around for two growing seasons,” Ballew explains. “But, once we’re finished picking late in the spring, we terminate that crop…. Then in the following fall, we plant all fresh plants.”
That’s partly because the strawberry plants don’t always yield as well during their second year. Starting with fresh plants each year can help mitigate disease and insect infestations, too.
Some commercial growers extend their strawberry production by planting ever-bearing varieties in late summer. “Then, we can generally pick a few berries off of them later in the fall,” he adds.
Depending on your local climate, you might even be able to harvest some ever-bearing strawberries during the winter and into the early spring.
Soil & Planting
Whether you intend to grow your own strawberries as annuals or keep the same patch going long-term, careful soil preparation is key. “We always recommend folks get a soil test,” Ballew says. “That will tell them about their soil pH and nutrients. Then they can make the adjustments needed.”
As for planting? “One big error that we see in commercial fields—and I’m sure it happens in home gardens as well—is that folks plant strawberries too deep,” he says. “Strawberries don’t tolerate that well at all.”
Bury their delicate crowns too far and they can rot. Or plants won’t be as vigorous as they could be. “They don’t grow as many side crowns, they don’t put on as many leaves, and they end up not yielding as well either,” Ballew continues.
If you’re planting soil-rooted plugs, set them into the ground, barely covering their tops with your native soil. As for bare root stock? “We put those in the ground so that we can see about 2/3 of the crown,” Ballew says. “Then we make sure to firm up the soil around that crown.”
He adds, “With bare root plants, it’s very common for people to fold or bunch the roots up and just stuff them into a hole in the soil. When that happens, the plant doesn’t respond very well…. Make sure the roots go straight down into the hole that you’re planting.”
Birds & Bugs
Once plants are in place, keep an eye out for creatures great and small. You may need to use hardware cloth cages or netting to keep birds from snatching your fruit.
And if you notice your plants looking stunted or turning yellow, you could have spider mites. “They have little needle-like mouthparts that they stick into the leaf,” Ballew says. “They breed very quickly and can do a lot of damage before we really realize it.”
You can try to control spider mites with horticultural oil or insecticidal soaps. Still, a better long-term solution may be to encourage beneficial predatory insects. Some species of thrips naturally feed on mite eggs.
“The ‘big-eyed bugs’ are also a very good predator of spider mites,” Ballew concludes.