HOW TO GROW: STRAWBERRIES
Strawberries are one of those crops that, if treated well, will reward you handsomely.
Many people grow strawberries at home, sadly most people aren’t growing them well enough to yield an adequate crop. My mission is to change that.
Together, we’re going to uncover the reasons why your strawberry plants may not be performing as they should and I’m going to arm you with the information you need to turn this situation around!
Alright, the key to growing any crop with abundance in your backyard is:
You need to garden like a farmer!
What do I mean by that?
It’s simple – if you’re sowing seeds or planting seedlings, giving them a bit of water here and there, and not much else – you aren’t going to get the volume of produce from those plants that they have the potential to crop. And frankly, you don’t deserve to! Plants need more than just a bit of light and water to be able to provide you with abundant fruits and vegetables.
Growing productive plants is not a set-and-forget activity. If you want abundant crops, you need to be prepared to put in a little effort.
So, what makes everyday gardeners different to people who produce on a commercial scale?
Attention to detail!
We should all know that plants need light, air, food and water to survive. Just like us!
To get the best crop out of our productive plants, we need understand the specific needs of each plant in terms of those key elements.
Farmers make it their business to know the needs of their plants. In order to keep on top of those needs, they tend their crops regularly – unlike some gardeners, they never set-and-forget!
When farmers tend their crops, they’re constantly observing their plants and in the back of their minds, they’re asking themselves the following questions:
- Do the plants look healthy?
- Have they got enough water? Have they got too much?
- Is there enough air circulating around each plant?
- Are they getting enough light?
- Are they hungry?
- Are they suffering from pests, diseases or competition from weeds?
Now, most farmers aren’t walking around in lab coats with clip boards and check lists – these are the questions that instantly spring to mind when they’re thinking about the elements their plants need to yield a good crop.
Lets Learn About Strawberries
Strawberries are members of the family rosacea – the rose family.
They are low growing, herbaceous plants around 15cmH x 30cmW. They’ll gradually spread up to a metre wide, if you allow them to self propagate. We’ll circle back to that later!
Strawberry plants prefer full sun, but will grow in partial shade. However, if you want sweet, juicy strawberries, it’s best to grow them in full sun.
Now, you might be asking yourself: “How many strawberry plants will we need to get a quality crop for our family?”
My recommendation is to have 30+ plants.
You can grow strawberries in pots or in soil. If you’re a regular here you’ll know my preference: IN THE SOIL!
Growing in pots is fine, but you need to:
- Feed them well – both at planting and again when they start to flower.
- Water them often. Truly, it’s your watering regime that makes the difference!
If you’re the kind of person who finds their pots are dry most of the time – make it your priority to master the watering of your plants – an irrigation system will help a lot, or …grow your plants in the ground!
Preparing Strawberry Beds
Strawberries like to live in free draining soil.
If you’re on heavy clay, don’t despair… you can fix this! Add as much compost to your soil as you can get your hands on. Plus, you might like to add a bit of coarse sand to loosen up those tightly bonding clay particles. I also like to add a bit of Coir (coconut fibre) to my soil when I prepare my beds for a new strawberry crop. The coconut fibre improves the soil structure by keeping the clay particles apart. It’s also great for retaining moisture in the soil. Coir is a magnet for worms which will churn it up and poop it out, further improving the soil structure and feeding your plants.
If you live on sandy soil, this is a whole lot better – as I mentioned earlier, strawberry plants love free draining soil. When I encounter gardens with very sandy soil, I add good amounts of compost and coconut fibre. The humic acid in the compost acts like glue, bonding the sand and clay particles, giving your soil structure, while the coconut fibre helps to retain moisture.
It’s also a good idea to incorporate a good amount of well aged, composted manure. My preference of manure for strawberry plants is: (in order of potassium (K) level) sheep (90), horse (60), chicken (50).
When you plant strawberries, it’s important to mound the soil up into a hill about 10-15cm above the normal level of your soil. This allows excess water to drain away from the crown of the plant and ensures that the crowns don’t get buried with soil over time, causing fungal issues to arise.
Place your plants in rows, about 30cm apart. If you have a dedicated strawberry patch you’ll need to space your rows about 70cm apart so that you have enough room to walk up and down the rows when you need to maintain and harvest your plants. This is truly the minimum spacing! These spacing are really important because your strawberry plants need regular clearing of dead and decaying leaves or fruit to ensure that there is good air circulation. It promotes new growth which means more flowers and fruit!
Feeding Your Strawberries
Remember that I said “Strawberries are members of the rose family?
Most people who have an interest in roses will know that they like a feed of sulphate of potash to put on more flowers.
This is where understanding the family history of plants is a really good thing – we know that potash is important for fruiting and flowering plants. In this case, strawberries are no different to their rose cousins! At the first sign of flowering, it’s a good idea to give you strawberries a feed with a potassium rich, organic fertiliser. Wood ash is a good source of potassium. You can sprinkle a small amount around each plant. Just don’t go crazy because it can dramatically change the pH of your soil, which can be a bad thing. Alternatively, you can add wood ash to a special compost heap, which you create for use on your fruiting plants. I prefer to do it this way because I can compost horse or sheep manure and rock dust along with my greens to make my own fruit and flower booster.
If you’re not that prepared yet:
Although tomatoes and strawberries are not botanically related, they do have similar nutritional requirements. As such, tomato specific organic fertilisers work well for strawberry plants.
As a rule I feed my strawberries sheep manure at a handful per plant every 6-8 weeks throughout spring and summer. I also give them a nitrogen rich liquid feed every 2 weeks. That liquid feed is generally a 50/50 mix of fish emulsion and either: seaweed solution, weed tea or worm juice.
Propagating Strawberry Plants
You can propagate strawberry plants from runners or seeds.
Growing strawberries from seeds is easy. It’s best to place the seeds in the fridge for a couple of weeks prior to sowing to trick the seeds into thinking that they’ve been through a chilly winter and that the spring weather is ready for them sprout.
Get yourself some good quality seed raising mix and use it to fill a nursery tray or seedling punnet. Using a flat object, press gently down on the seed raising mix so that you create a flat surface on which to sow your seeds. Carefully sprinkle the seeds evenly across the surface of your punnet or tray – you don’t want seeds too close together because it may inhibit germination or make it difficult to prick out your seedlings and pot them on. You can either leave the seeds exposed or you can lightly cover the seed with sieved compost or, vermiculite. It’s important to keep the seed raising mix moist – if you have vermiculite, that will help. However, you might like to cover your tray with some kind of clear plastic dome, like an upturned storage container or even a takeaway container. Just ensure that you have some holes in the top for air circulation.
It may take between 2 – 8 weeks for your seeds to germinate, so you’ll need a little patience. Allow those seeds that have germinated to grow their first 3 leaves before you carefully prick them out and pot them on into larger pots. When pricking out your strawberry seedlings, make sure you hold each seedling by its leaves, not the stem. If the leaves break it’s not a big problem because the plant can continue growing. Unfortunately, if you break the stem it’s curtains for that little plant!
It’s best to allow your seedlings to grow on in larger pots until they are more established. To get a fair idea of the size I’m talking about, think about how strawberry plants look at the nursery – this is what you’re aiming for. By that stage they would have established a good root system and will be ready to brave the elements in your garden.
By far, the easiest way to grow strawberry plants is to propagate your plants from runners. I have written what I believe to be a comprehensive guide to growing strawberries from runners here.
Strawberry Pests and Diseases:
Strawberries are prone to a range of health problems, many of which come from poor hygiene and pest attack.
There are two types of control methods that you can deal with pests and diseases anywhere in the garden. Those are:
- Chemical controls
- Biological controls
Chemical Controls: are those in which we use plant based or man made chemicals to control pest and disease issues. I’m sure none of us want to use unnatural chemicals on our plants – I absolutely don’t advocate the use of man made chemicals anywhere in the garden. Having said that, I’m not a huge fan of natural natural chemicals like neem or homemade white oil sprays. These are still “chemicals” and are NON-DISCRIMINATE, affecting all who come into contact with it. I avoid the use of them wherever possible, using them as an absolute last resort – I pretty much never use them! I prefer:
Biological controls: which means, encouraging creatures in the natural world to do the job for you. How do I do this? I have lots of plants that support the beneficial insects I need in my garden to keep pest species in check. I’m not aiming to never see an aphid – what would the ladybirds feed on? What I aim for is balance! I have insect hotels around my garden so that the good bugs have somewhere to lay their eggs. I also provide habitat to encourage birds, lizards and frogs. It’s a bit like a symphony really. It takes time to set it up, but the benefits are worth it!
Just to give you an idea: Insects like ladybirds will, in their larval stage, eat hundreds of pests like aphids. Those cheeky aphids are vectors of some viruses that affect our strawberry plants.
And how about the female lacewing – she can eat up to 60 aphids in an hour. Holler!
Here’s a list of the most common pest you’ll have to deal with in your strawberry patch:
Aphids, Two-spotted or Red spider mites, Slugs, Snails, Earwigs, Millipedes, Birds, Rats and Mice.
Aphids and Two-spotted Spider Mites: As we’ve already discussed, insects like ladybirds and lacewings are great for chewing their way through your aphid problem. There is also a predatory mite that will take care of your Two-spotted Spider Mite problem too. You can buy these creatures over the net and have them delivered right to your front door. To my mind, its a great way to spend $50 – I mean how often do you spend $50 and get 10,000 of anything? For suppliers go to www.goodbugs.org.au
Here’s how I deal with other pests:
Slugs and snails – I find it best to head out at night with the torch and collect all of the snails I can find. They either go to my chooks or, down to the local lake where there are heaps of hungry ducks who are grateful for the extra protein. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of feeding wildlife but this is actually one of their natural sources of food so I think this is fine. By the way… don’t throw the snails/slugs into the water! Just on the surrounding grass is fine!
Earwigs & Millipedes – you can set up toilet roll traps by rolling up wet paper or paper towel in a few toilet rolls. Leave them out overnight and feed the earwigs to your chooks or, if you have no chooks around, pop the trap into a plastic container and put it into the freezer for 24 hrs. When the earwigs are dead, pop them into your compost and reset your traps.
Rats and mice – A rat zapper is the best way to go. You can get a range of battery operated devices that deliver a fatal electric shock to rats or mice that pass over the electric plate inside the trap. Ours has been one of our best investments!
In terms of diseases: Good hygiene is the best defence against fungal and bacterial issues. So keep your plants clean and tidy with ample air circulation and you should be fine.
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Feeling confident to get out there are plant your strawberry patch?
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Don’t forget that you can check out my garden on Instagram – you’ll find me @EveryDayInTheGarden – feel free to tag me in your strawberry patch photos. I’ll definitely help you wherever I can.