Strawberries

Strawberries are easy-to-grow plants that deserve a space in every garden.

Nothing compares to the taste of homegrown strawberries — the sweetness is like the taste of summer. Just as garden-fresh tomatoes beat the flavor of supermarket tomatoes, the strawberries you grow in your garden will be sweeter, juicier, and more tender than anything the stores sell. That’s because the berries you find in the supermarket are specially bred for their ability to survive being shipped long distances — not for flavor.

The good news is that growing strawberries is quite easy. We’ve got some important tips below on getting started and how to care for and protect your plants to ensure a hearty harvest of these delicious jewels.

Selecting Which Varieties to Grow

There are four types of strawberries you can grow, each with their own characteristics that make them better suited to different gardens. When selecting which strawberries to include in your garden, keep in mind your climate and whether you’d like to have a lot of fruit ripen at once for canning or preserving, or have a steady stream of ripe fruit for enjoying all summer.

Alpine Strawberries
Alpine strawberry plants are well behaved in the garden and are remarkably easy to grow. These attractive perennial plants are cultivated strains of wild or woodland strawberries and reportedly were transplanted into European gardens as early as the 12th century. Plants like the Mignonette variety yield a modest summer-long harvests of delicate three-quarter-inch fruit.

Day Neutral Strawberries
The day neutral varieties like Eversweet have a longer production season than the June bearers as they produce several flushes of fruit over the course of the summer. They often don’t produce many runners because their energy is concentrated on fruit production. A planting is usually grown for 3 years or so and is then replaced. These plants aren’t affected by day length.

Everbearing Strawberries
Everbearing strawberries like Seascape produce two to three good harvests of fruit during their growing season, generally from June to August. They do not produce many runners.

June Bearing Strawberries
These were the original garden strawberries and produce a single large crop over a period of several weeks in early summer. You may be able to extend the harvest season to a couple of months by planting several varieties, like Allstar, Chandler, and Honeoye, that ripen at different times. Be aware that they don’t produce a crop until their second season of growth.

Tips for Growing Wonderfully Delicious Strawberries

Soil Preparation
Strawberries prefer a slightly acidic (ideal PH: 5.8-6.5), well-drained, sandy loam with lots of organic matter, but they can grow in most soil types as long as they get a solid 8 hours of full sun daily.

Strawberries are perennial plants so you have to fertilize them heavily before planting; you won’t be able to incorporate anything else into the soil for a while as they’re getting established, so it’s important to prepare your soil before planting. Spread a 3-inch layer of compost or aged manure on the ground and fork it to a depth of 10 inches. Be careful to remove any weeds you come across in the process to prevent any competition for space and nutrients. You want to give them lots of room for root growth.

Plant Care
The good news about growing strawberries is that once the bed is established they can be fairly low maintenance with the main tasks being thinning out excess plants and harvesting. Strawberries are perennial plant in most climates. The first year is spent building roots and greenery, with few fruit. In the late autumn, the plants go into a rest period until early spring when they begin growing again.

Keep in mind that most berries will be produced on plants that grew the previous year, so you want to keep them multiplying and growing vigorously. To do that, be sure to clip off the first set of flowers to encourage your plants to put on more greenery before directing their attention toward making fruit.

Plant Protection
It’s important to spread a layer of mulch around each plant to help the soil retain moisture, reduce weed growth, and protect the developing fruit from damage or disease transferred from the soil when water splashes up. Many gardeners like to use straw mulch, which adds organic material to the soil as it breaks down. The drawback to straw is that it can be an attractive habitat for slugs and snails.

Plastic sheet mulching is common in commercial strawberry growing, and will help control weeds, but needs to be installed carefully to prevent puddles that cause disease, and as the plants grow they will need irrigation as the plastic will block water from soak in naturally.

Strawberry mats are another option. These reusable fabric mats are available in some garden centers and have copper woven in to deter slugs and snails. Because they’re porous water can seep through but reduce splash back onto the developing fruits. You simply cut them to size, and slip them between the plant and the soil.

Many gardeners also use crop covers to protect their berries from birds and other wildlife. Row covers can also be used to protect plants during cool nights, and then again during the heat of summer to protect the fruit from becoming sunburnt.

Pollination
The flowers are pollinated by insects, mostly bees. Most modern strawberry varieties are self-fertile, so you only need to plant one variety, although you may well want several to extend the harvest season, each maturing at different times to have a succession of fruit all summer long.

Seed Saving
Many plants will give good harvests for two to three years. Seed saving isn’t recommended because most strawberries are hybrids and unreliable due to crossbreeding. Fortunately, strawberry plants spread by way of sending out runners, each with a new plant on the end that is identical to the parent plant. Throughout the growing season, it’s best to trim back all but only a few runners to allow the plant to focus on fruit production, keeping only a few daughter plants to eventually replace their aging mothers.

Alternative Growing Options

Growing as an Annual
If winter doesn’t provide enough cold weather for your strawberry plants to rest then they won’t really be able to thrive. In these situations your best option is to grow them as an annual, planting in fall and harvesting the following summer (after the harvest the plants are removed). This can work out pretty well (many big commercial growers operate like this) but obviously it requires more work than perennial growing.

Container Gardens
Strawberries are excellent container plants. Many garden centers sell specialized strawberry containers — an open top ceramic or clay pot with several smaller openings around the sides. They also work well in hanging pots, window boxes, grow bags and vertical gardening containers.


Smart Gardener makes it easy to start a garden. We can help you decide which varieties of strawberry will work best in your garden and give you the advice you need to get started, and then send you weekly to-dos to keep you on track!

The trick to a successful first garden: start out small

You might not think so from the countless words that have been written about it, but vegetable gardening is a pretty simple process. Plants are genetically programmed to grow (even our pampered crop plants) and all you have to do is give them the right things at the right times. You take seed, put it in the soil and it grows. The basic requirements are soil, sunlight, seed, water and motivation. Continue reading “The trick to a successful first garden: start out small”

Sugar Snap Peas

Have you considered growing peas? Looking for something to feed your sweet tooth, straight from the garden? Look no further than the Sugar Snap pea. There’s a reason they’re called “garden candy.”

The Sugar Snap is actually a relative newcomer to the garden (first introduced in 1979), but it is now established as one of the great treats of spring. When my Sugar Snaps start to ripen they become the center of the garden and remain so until all the pods are gone.

The Sugar Snap differs from traditional garden peas (like Green Arrow) in that the whole pod is edible, and differs from the edible podded snow peas (like Mammoth Melting) in that the pod is fat, sweet and delicious.

As the whole pod is edible they produce a significantly bigger harvest and don’t need shelling. The original Sugar Snap variety was so successful it eventually spawned a whole range of snap peas: bush varieties, disease resistant types and some without strings. There are now even yellow, purple and pink tinted types.

The Sugar Snap was hailed as a revolutionary new kind of pea when it appeared, but it wasn’t actually as new as it seemed at the time. It turns out that the Amish have been growing snap peas for a long time and they are so similar that a casual observer probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Should I grow peas?
Peas (along with beans) have a special place in the vegetable garden because they are host to nitrogen fixing bacteria and so can add fertility to the soil as they grow. This won’t happen unless the right type of bacteria is present in the soil though, so if you haven’t grown peas within the last five years you should inoculate the seed with a suitable strain of inoculant.

The real flavor of Snap peas comes through best when they are eaten raw and this is how almost all of ours get eaten. My children will eat them straight from the vine all day long and few pods actually make it as far as the kitchen (their friends have been known to strip a planting of all pods of any significant size). They are also good when very lightly steamed, but don’t cook them for more than a couple of minutes, or they may turn to mush.

Tips on growing great peas
Air Temperature: Peas thrive in cool weather and don’t like heat, with 60-75˚ F being optimal. They are fully hardy and the first planting can be sown directly into the garden in early spring, a month before the last frost date.

Soil Temperature: The soil doesn’t even have to be very warm, as they will germinate (if rather slowly) at temperatures as low as 40˚ F.

Succession Planting: It is a good idea to make several succession plantings about 3 weeks apart, to ensure an abundant supply of pods until the weather gets too warm.

Weeding: The established plants don’t require much care. Weeds can be a problem for the young seedlings, but they soon outgrow and overshadow any weeds.

Watering: They do need regular moisture, but in early spring there is usually plenty in the soil and you rarely need to water.

Getting set up
The original Sugar Snap is a pole variety and must have a tall support structure for good growth (hog wire fence works well). If it isn’t tall enough they will eventually run out of climbing room and flop over (when my dad first grew them in England they went right over the top of his 6 foot high wall and started supplying his neighbor with pods).

It is a good idea to set up your supports before you plant, as it’s easy to damage the fragile seedlings. If you don’t want to deal with such a tall plant there are now bush varieties, such as Sugar Ann.

It is easier to provide support for the plants when they are growing in rows, so they are commonly planted in double offset rows with 3” between the plants and 6” between the rows. If you need more than one double row, then leave 24” between the pairs of rows.

You can also wrap hog wire fence into a cylinder and plant in a circle around it (this looks quite ornamental when fully covered, though not for long).

Established plants grow vigorously and quickly produce a wall of foliage 6 to 8 feet high, which makes an attractive (though temporary) screen.

Pests to watch out for
The biggest obstacle to growing Snap Peas is getting them established. It’s not that they are hard to germinate (this is easy) but rather that birds like to eat the succulent green parts and often pull the emerging seedlings out of the ground. The best way to prevent this is to cover the whole bed with netting.

Mice can sometimes be a problem too, as they sometimes dig and eat the seed before it has even germinated. If they are a problem you might have to start your plants indoors, though they dislike transplanting, so must be grown in individual cell packs (and not kept indoors for too long).

Ready to harvest!
The pods mature quickly after pollination and you need to check and harvest the plants regularly (every day or so). Harvest the pods when they are fat and round and sweet to taste. Don’t harvest too early or they won’t be as good as they can be.

It is important to pick all of the pods as they size up, if you leave some on the vine the seed will mature and production may decline (if this happens save the seed for planting next year). In cool weather, a well managed planting may yield for 6 weeks or more, though if the weather turns hot it may be as short as 2 weeks.


Smart Gardener makes it easy to grow peas, and more! We help you every step of the way from selecting seeds and preparing your garden, to sending you weekly reminders of garden tasks to keep your plants healthy and happy!

Peas for St. Patrick’s Day

Image: Peasl Photo source: Jessica Ruscello, UnsplashIn Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is the traditional day to plant peas in a spring garden. In the United States the timing can vary somewhat from zone to zone, but March 17th still works well as a guide for starting peas for most areas. And what a perfect way to bring your garden a bit of the “luck of the Irish” by planting something green!

Why you should grow peas.

Did you know peas have been cultivated by humans for anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 years? Peas are an easy, rewarding crop for spring, and are a great way to fix nitrogen in the soil for your summer plants. As an early spring crop they can be out of the ground by June, leaving time for a warm weather crop to succeed them.

Selecting a variety.

Image of peas in a basket

Dried Shelling Peas are typically used for soups or stews, and fresh shelled immature peas are good lightly steamed or boiled. Their pod is too fibrous to be edible, and the peas themselves must be removed from the shells, hence their name. Bush Shelling peas grow in a compact bush form, while the more common Vine Shelling peas, which grow on vines that require staking or trellising but which are generally more productive than bush varieties.

Snap Peas are a more recently developed edible-podded pea, this one originated in America. The pod is thicker and more succulent than that of the Snow Pea, and less fibrous than standard Shelling Peas. These are now one of the most popular types of pea, because there is no work in shelling and very little waste.

Snow Peas have thin crisp pods that are nearly translucent and bright green, with tiny seeds. The whole pod is edible and quite sweet when picked at the right time. The name may come from the whitish tint reflected from the pods, or because of their tendency to grow at the end of winter, just before the last spring freeze. As their name suggests, they can be covered with snow during these times, but still keep growing.

When to plant.

In moderate climates, you can sow directly into your garden bed, while in colder climates you may need to start them indoors. Fortunately, peas do well in containers, so you may not even need to transplant them!

In warmer climates, you may have already started your peas back in January or February, but you can still continue to sow new seeds for a second harvest before the warm days of summer.

Getting started.

The best soil for peas is a loose well-drained loam. Peas don’t need a lot of nitrogen, as they can obtain their own. In fact, if nitrogen is too easily available they won’t bother to fix any. Peas do need phosphorus (colloidal phosphate) and potassium (wood ashes), as well as calcium and magnesium (use dolomitic limestone).

If the soil is compacted double digging is beneficial. If it is poorly drained, use raised beds, especially for early plantings, as they don’t like wet soil. In very poor soils it may pay to plant your peas in trenches, filled with a mixture of soil and compost.

If you’re growing a vining variety, you will need to supply a trellis or poles for the plants to grow along.

Where to Put the Vegetable Garden

Image: selection of shovels and a pitchfork in grass. Photo source: Dylan Nolte, UnsplashIf you are completely new to vegetable gardening, one of the first things you need to think about is where to put the garden.

In a small garden you usually don’t have many options. It has to go where there is room. Don’t make the mistake of putting it where it won’t work though. If the best place is already occupied by an ornamental bed or a garden shed, it may be necessary to rearrange things to make room for the vegetables. In some situations you might have to remove sources of shade, such as a tree, in order to get enough sunlight.

In a large garden you’ll have many more options. If you have several choices you should try to take advantage of any favorable microclimate, such as a south facing slope. Ideally the vegetable garden should be fairly low down on a slope to avoid high winds and to get better soil with more moisture. However it should not be so low that it is in a frost pocket. In a dry climate you might put the vegetable garden in any area with naturally moist soil. A flat area often isn’t as warm as a south facing slope, but it is generally easier to work with.

There are certain conditions that all food gardens must meet in order to be productive. Consider the following before you start digging:

Image of a watering can watering plants in a garden. Photo source: Markus Spiske, Unsplash

The most important factor in growing a garden is sunlight. More sun means more plant growth. In fact, the majority of crop plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day to grow well. So your first objective is to put the vegetable patch where it will get the most sun.

A fertile soil is also a big help, but it is less important than sun because you have the power to improve the soil through your gardening activities.

Good drainage is important because plants won’t grow in waterlogged soil. This is particularly important in spring because you should never dig wet soil (it will damage the soil’s structure). And waiting for the soil to dry out can cause delays (wet soil also warms up more slowly than dry soil).

If your garden is exposed to strong winds, you will need to think about shelter. Strong winds can batter plants, cool winds can chill them and dry winds can increase evaporation. If there is no natural shelter you will have to think about a windbreak (without creating shade however).

You should never put your vegetable beds on the north side of tall objects such as buildings, walls, trees or shrubs where they will get little sun. You should also keep them well away from any trees or shrubs, as their creeping roots will move into the fertile and well watered soil and extract most of their available nutrients (this would drastically reduce your crop plant growth).

A graphic showing a garden's optimal orientation to the sun

Consider the proximity to the house. The closer the food garden is to the kitchen the more you will use it. Ideally the garden should be within 100 feet of your kitchen door so it is easy to nip outside and harvest while cooking. If it is further away you tend to limit your trips out there , so the harvest becomes more sporadic. Someone once estimated that the harvest declined by 30% when the garden was over 100 feet away. A garden that is close to the house gets tended more conscientiously, not only because it is more convenient, but because it is so visible. You make more effort to keep it looking good because otherwise it would be embarrassing every time someone came to visit.

Finally it’s nice if the vegetable garden is in its own area and isn’t on the way to somewhere else. If it is right in the center of a play or entertainment area then plants may get damaged by passing children, dogs and wheelbarrows; and those tempting ripe tomatoes will keep disappearing.

Image of a garden layout showing shade area

SmartGardener.com creates a Smart Garden Plan for you which automatically and optimally orients all your plants in relation to the sun – so you can get out into the garden!