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GARDEN MAIDEN: All about growing your own strawberries

Cultivating, pest management and interesting tidbits

The Dirty Dozen.

Not a band of Wild West riders, but a group of fruits and vegetables tested by the Environmental Work Group (EWG) for the amounts of residue pesticide on and within supermarket produce.

Keep in mind, EWG has much more stringent requirements of safe and much of their test results deemed unacceptable are within the range deemed safe for human consumption by the Environmental Protection Agency. In other words, maybe this group is a bit extreme and overly protective, but the mother in me agrees to hop on board with their annual evaluations and we agree as a family to buy the hit list only if it is available in the organic produce section.

Topping the list for 2019 is strawberries. And even when we are diligent in selecting big, bold, red organic strawberries, the stakes of being packed with flavor are as slim as picking the winning lottery numbers.

So, we did it. Mostly in honor of reviving Mom’s gift of homemade strawberry jam as part of our homesteading treasure. We dug 123 crowns adorning the groundbreaking of fallow fields up for production in 2020. And not just any plants. Two select cultivars for excellent freezing quality and high yields so we get to have berries grown on our farm all year long.

Whether beginning again like us or taking on strawberries for the first time, a few key tips can assure success. Most importantly, be particular about the type of plant you choose. When properly cared for, strawberry plants are perennials that thrive up to five years producing fruit in all but the first year.

Strawberry plants are divided into three types: everbearing, day neutral and June bearing. When do you want to pick berries? Everbearing plants produce two distinct crops. The first is similar timing to June bearing plants with a second crop in late summer. Day neutral plants are modern hybrids bred to produce consistently from late summer all the way into fall weather and are often miscategorized as everbearing. Or do you prefer one and done harvest lasting two to three weeks as soon as weather warms up in June? June bearing types tend to be larger and conical in size. Heirlooms bursting with sweetness like Alpine and Musk varieties tend to be smaller, round berries.

Additionally, since the majority of available plants are hybridized, find a cultivar with proven hardiness in your growing zone. From tiny morsels of super sweet to dense and almost citric apple-sized fruit, there are more than 103 distinct varieties of strawberries.

The University of Illinois Extension service suggests the following 10 varieties to grow successfully in Illinois: Earligrow, Annapolis, Honeoye, Delmarvel, Seneca, Jewel, Kent, Allstar, Tristar and Tribute. And dozens more that make excellent selections as annuals.

Planting and caring for your strawberries

Plant your first-year crown as soon as soil can be worked in the spring. Work an equally balanced general fertilizer and peat moss into a sunny, well-drained bed to achieve an ideal 6.7 pH (slightly acidic). For no-till planting, sprinkling peat around crowns works, too. Give care to keep the strawberry crown slightly above soil level, as this is where the plant produces fruit and runners. Plant spacing varies depending on which type. Everbearing plants spend much of their time producing berries and can be planted in a basic 18-inch to 24-inch grid. June bearing plants, though, will send off many daughter plants after their one-and-done production each season.

To invest in your June bearing offspring as your next generation of producers, embed mother plants on 5-foot center rows, planning to till the original row under in as production wanes in their fourth or fifth year. For this method, offer plants and in-row spacing of 12 inches apart and lay a 5-inch bed of straw as an outlier buffer along the row. Daughter plant runners shoot out after your first berry harvest. Sudden temperature spikes after cold, wet spring weather foster fungal and bacterial pestilence just about the time plants are setting flowers. Straw provides a natural protective barrier to keep foliage clean and dry to deter plant infection. For everbearing and day neutral types, a bed of straw between rows serves the same purpose.

But should you let early runners run? While strawberries can grow from cold stratified seeds under well-lit and consistently moisturized controlled setting, most plant propagation happens through the second generation of shoots, called runners, springing from the mother plant. Runners will leap out from the crown of the plant and find bare ground to cling new roots into the ground and form another plant. If you want to be particular in optimizing mother plant berry production, trim these runners off the first two years, allowing fruit production to be the plant’s main focus. During year three, pamper the runners that will become mothers three years out.

If perennial health is your goal, a little extra care during the first year fosters up to four subsequent seasons of productive fruit. Trim all buds and delay fruit production the whole first season. This feels a bit extreme and wasteful, but similar to perennials like asparagus and rhubarb, the one-year delay in harvesting promotes a longer life of the plant.

Optionally, trim only the first round of flowers and allow your first-year crowns to produce berries from a fortified second flowering, accepting smaller fruits and a lower yield for continuous seasons.

Those of us who chart progress can mark 30 days from flowers appearing as an expected harvest start date. Whether harvest is a few weeks or all season, continue caring for your plants as next year's buds are forming in the stems as soon as this year’s harvest subsides.

Protect plants with a solid bed of mulch during winter dormancy. Straw or disease-free fall leaves works well. If plants show signs of wilt or rust, trimming and discarding foliage helps prevent further distress. Remember, buds are forming in the stems, so leave 3 to 4 inches from the crown intact whenever possible.

More strawberry tips

Growing strawberries is right up there with sweet corn and sweet potatoes when it comes to risk against pests. Proper tending all spring and summer is no match for the wait and never-see harvest time game of hoping to wake each day without birds devouring the ripening fruit in one fell swoop during evening flight.

I’ve heard painting rocks red early in the season works well. Our spring therapy will be painting berry sized rocks red and lay them in the patch right when blossoms appear. Divebombing thieves are quickly deterred long before soft, ripe fruit appears.

Companion planting of borage near strawberries is believed to improved their flavor and growth, along with attracting pollinators early to the garden. Borage is particularly attractive to wasps that devour other pests in the area. Welcome hungry ladybugs with a bit of dill. Aphid-eating green lacewings prefer cilantro.

Asparagus and strawberries can share a bed by planting asparagus crowns a foot deep so that strawberries planted 4 to 6 inches deep draw nutrients from a whole different layer of soil.

Did you know ...?

Now for a bit of fun! Strawberries are not a berry at all. In fact, technically, you are eating the stem of the plant when an accessory fruit forms not from the ovaries of the plant, but when another part of the flower becomes fleshy. In the case of the strawberry, you are eating a mass of such fleshy parts combined that form an aggregate fruit we call a strawberry. Each of the nearly 200 seeds on the outside of the strawberry is actually a simple dried fruit called achene, which serves as the plant’s ovary.

Those of you into superfoods and microgreens might be the least alarmed when such achenes burst into a mask of green shoots emerging from the strawberry’s surface, a rare seed germinating phenomenon called vivipary.

An 8.82-ounce, nearly 12-inch-wide strawberry grown in Japan of the type Amaou holds the world record for heaviest strawberry.

Medieval masons and builders often marked stones and columns with strawberry designs to symbolize perfection and righteousness.

For a number of years during the High Middle Ages in the 12th century, Abbess Saint Hildegard von Binger announced strawberries were not fit for eating as they grew on the ground where toads and snakes likely crept over them. Local political figures heeded her words and made similar statements discouraging the people from consuming them. Among Europeans, this belief held for many years.

Today, California grows about 88% of the U.S.-grown strawberries on approximately 34,000 acres along the Pacific Ocean coast, averaging a 50,000 pounds-per-acre harvest each season.

We are thinking a strawberry jam contest is in order next fall. Is anyone reading this growing heirloom varieties? Share your strawberry recipes and heritage stories with me at gardenmaiden.com.

HOLLY KOSTER is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing tsloup@shawmedia.com; via Twitter, @gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook, facebook.com/gardenmaiden9.

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