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!

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.

Early spring planting tips

Image of three seedlings on wooden board. Photo source: Daniel Hjalmarsson, UnsplashYou’ve already selected the area for your garden, started your seedlings, tended your soil, and mapped out your garden bed. All that’s left to do now is get planting. So, when is the right time to transplant your beautiful starts? Ideally, the spring growing season starts when the day length gets over 10 hours (which seems to be a minimum for plant growth) and the daytime temperature regularly reaches into the 50s or 60s. But it’s a bit more complicated that simply checking the air temperature and daylight hours.

Soil warmth
Close up of hands holding a seedling in dirt.At this point the only remaining obstacle to significant plant growth is cold soil, as this warms up much more slowly than air. Fortunately you can warm the soil quite easily by covering it with polyethylene sheet for 2 to 3 weeks. Black colored sheet can raise the temperature by 10˚ F, while clear sheet can raise it by as much as 15˚ F. If you plan on using a tunnel cloche to protect your plants, you can simply put this on 3 weeks early and it will warm up the soil for you. These methods will also help the soil to dry out, which is good for soil preparation and planting. It should go without saying that if you had mulch on the bed over the winter, this should be removed several weeks before planting, as it insulates the soil and prevents it from warming up.

Temperature is temperamental
Spring weather varies enormously from year to year and is only predictable in its unpredictability. At Smartgardener we use the average date of last frost to time our planting, because it gives us a practical way to estimate planting times for the whole country. This works well, but it is important to understand that the average date of last frost is just that, an average and that in any given year a frost may come several weeks earlier or several weeks later.

Image of broccoli florets in a basket.

The first spring crops (kale, broccoli, snow peas) are perfectly hardy and aren’t bothered by low temperatures, they will just grow very slowly until warmer weather arrives. The warm weather crops (tomato, pepper, squash) are more vulnerable however, as they stop growing completely and can become susceptible to rot and pests (in some cases they may even be permanently damaged).

It seems like every year I plant my warm weather transplants in sunny weather and within a few days its turns cold and wet. The most urgent need is to protect them from any frost, which could kill them before they even get going. The plants are pretty small at this point and so are easy to cover with frost blankets or a few inches of loose mulch (and maybe a bucket for extra insurance).

Building for warmth
Image of a child water plants in a garden bed under a cloth covering.Of course it isn’t enough to just keep the plants alive, you also want to keep them growing vigorously and you can do this by using tunnel cloches (these consist of a simple series of hoops covered in clear polyethylene sheet). The temperature inside one of these may be 20 degrees warmer than outside and it can really speed up plant growth. Being able to protect and pamper your plants in this way allows you to plant earlier and have faster growth. Do it well and you can be eating tomatoes in early June, rather than early August (you might even get into a friendly competition with yourself to get ripe tomatoes earlier every year). Tunnel cloches heat up so well on sunny days, they need to be well ventilated to prevent them overheating and cooking the plants inside.

A dual use tunnel cloche for tomatoes can be made from a piece of hog wire, bent into an arch and covered with polyethylene sheet. When the weather warms up you remove the plastic, but leave the hog wire in place to act as a support for the plants.