Strawberries are one of the most rewarding food crops to grow in a small home garden. Homegrown berries taste far better than the store-bought ones and you can save some serious money by not having to pay supermarket prices.
While most fruit trees take several years to begin bearing, you can harvest your own strawberries the very first summer.
1. DECIDE WHERE TO GROW YOUR STRAWBERRIES
Get them some sun on the balcony, rooftop, patio or doorstep.
And even if you live in an apartment, condo, townhouse, or small home, you can grow berries in a container on your balcony, rooftop, patio, or even doorstep. If your horizontal space is limited, consider growing strawberries in a hanging basket or stacked planter, which will allow you to take advantage of vertical growing space as the strawberry plants tumble out over the sides. By home-growing your own berries, you will also be helping the environment, since commercially grown strawberries use wasteful amounts of water, chemical fertilizers, and some of the worst pesticides imaginable, not to mention the environmental cost of shipping them for hundreds or thousands of miles.
A sunny spot outside your home is the best place to grow strawberries, though you can get a partial crop with less than a half day of direct sunlight. For shadier spots, try planting Alpine strawberries (available from vegetable seed catalogs and online nurseries), which take more patience but ultimately produce delicious fruit.
2. CHOOSE A CONTAINER FOR THEM
Give your plants enough room to grow.
Whether you choose a container made of clay, plastic, wood, or other material, make sure it has a soil depth of at least 12-14 inches to give the plants' root systems space to grow. How many plants you can fit in will depend upon the width of the container, since you should space plants about 10-12 inches apart to allow them to spread horizontally.
3. FILL THE CONTAINER WITH SOIL THAT MAKES STRAWBERRIES HAPPY
Strawberries like room!
Strawberries like deep, loamy soil that drains well. This means that it should contain plenty of organic matter (such as compost, shredded bark or peat moss) as well as some sand or grit. Most potting soil mixes sold at nurseries will be sufficient, and if you have access to compost, sprinkle an inch or so on top. Be sure the container has drainage holes in the bottom.
Before planting, buy a small bag of organic fertilizer from your nursery, mix it into your soil, and water this down. You can ask your nursery to recommend the right fertilizer for your soil type and region, but in general, strawberries like plenty of nitrogen plus balanced amounts of the other major nutrients. A 10-10-10 fertilizer is not excessive, especially since organic fertilizers have a slower release time.
4. GET YOUR STRAWBERRY PLANTS
Want your strawberries this year, or can you wait?
Your next step is to find some plants and put them in the soil. There are two main kinds of strawberries available: "June-bearing" plants that will bear in spring or early summer, and "Everbearing" or day-neutral varieties that can bear from early summer right up until your first frost. While June-bearing varieties can take a year to establish (you normally plant them now for next year's harvest), everbearing plants can give you fruit the very first year and may allow you to extend your harvest over a period of weeks or months. There are many great varieties of strawberries out there and your local nursery should be able to recommend some good ones for the climate in your area. Sequoia and Chandler are the two sweetest berries I have ever tasted, while Seascape, Honeoye, Quinalt, Tristar, and Allstar have proven themselves in multiple climates.
5. CARE FOR YOUR PLANTS AND ENJOY
For optimum production, keep your strawberry plants well watered throughout the growing season. Plants should continue to be productive for at least 2-3 years, but will need to be replaced thereafter. To renovate June-bearing plants for next year, trim off their old leaves, making sure not to damage the center stalk (crown) of the plant. Everbearers do not need this trimming, but all plants should be given some top-dressed fertilizer again after fruiting. I wish you the best of success in growing your own berries!
R.J. Ruppenthal is author of FRESH FOOD FROM SMALL SPACES
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