Juicy and sweet, strawberries are the first garden fruit crop of the year. In June, strawberry festivals are celebrated across the country; people flock to pick-your-own farms and leave laden with baskets of luscious red berries to enjoy with cream, or in shortcakes, pies, jams and jellies. Rich in potassium and vitamin C, strawberries are as good for you as they are delicious, and have disease-fighting phytochemicals, such as flavonoids and ellagic acid.
The garden strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa) is easy to grow—even a small patch will produce a good crop of delicious berries. And by growing your own organically, you can avoid heavy concentrations of pesticides, often found in store-bought varieties.
Of the three types of strawberries available (everbearers, Junebearers and dayneutrals), everbearers produce crops in both spring and fall, but the fruit is smaller and less flavourful than that of the other two, which are the focus of this article.
Not surprisingly, Junebearers yield a single large crop of berries in June. They produce numerous runners (long stems that grow more strawberry plants at their ends), which means extra work for the gardener, who has to continually remove them. As well, they don't produce fruit in their first year.
Dayneutrals yield berries throughout summer, even in their first year. They also have fewer runners, so they're easier to tend. Since dayneutrals flower throughout the warm months, those growing in areas where late spring frosts are a problem will still bear fruit later in the season, but this means a greater possibility of botrytis fruit rot and tarnished plant bugs.
Planting your strawberry patch
Plant strawberries in spring when the deciduous trees start to leaf out. Choose a sunny, fast-draining location with good air circulation and protection from strong winds; avoid low-lying areas where frost damage to flowers is likely to occur. If the future site has perennial weeds, such as bindweed and quack grass, start preparing the patch the fall before to ensure all weed roots and underground shoots are removed.
There are three basic methods used to grow strawberries; choose the one that will best suit you. Within the planting site, mix five to 7.5 centimetres of compost into the soil, then sprinkle a balanced organic fertilizer over the surface and work it into the ground. Meanwhile, soak the roots of the plants in water for one hour before putting them into the ground, and keep them damp and cool while planting. Trim off any dead leaves, broken roots, flowers and flower buds.
Dig a hole 12 to 18 centimetres wide and as deep as the roots are long. As you place the plant in the hole, point the roots downward and fan them out in all directions. (Proper positioning of the crown—the solid area that bears the leaves above and the roots below—is essential for plant survival.) As you fill in the hole, make sure the roots and the midpoint of the crown are covered with soil and the top part of the crown with the leaves is just above soil level. Press down firmly around the roots and water well. After watering, check the crown and reposition, if necessary.
Use mulch to control weeds, retain moisture, keep the soil cool and the berries off the ground. After planting, add a five- to 7.5-centimetre layer of straw, old hay or leaf mould, nestling the mulch around the plants. For the first season only, remove the flowers of Junebearers as soon as they appear and those of dayneutrals until July 1 to direct the plants' energies into forming good root systems.