Gardening: Succulent Sweet Strawberries

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Curly Locks, Curly Locks, wilt thou be mine?
Ye shan’t wash the dishes, nor yet feed the swine,
But sit by the fire, and sew a fine seam,
And feast upon strawberries, sugar, and cream.

European Romeos had to await the discovery of wild Virginia strawberries to make such an extravagant promise.  It took another 300 years for some now-anonymous cook to imagine strawberries, sugar, and cream into the 19th century’s most luxurious dessert.  Those gigantic strawberries flooding grocery store produce departments come from descendants of the wild New World originals.

According to Dr. Larry Stein strawberries are actually small, perennial, evergreen members of the rose family.  Who knew?

A diagram shows strawberry plants with four major parts: a fibrous tangle of roots, a stem or crown made of “woody” plant tissues, long-stemmed leaves, and equally long-stemmed berries.  The crown produces the leave and fruits.  Ninety percent of the roots live in decomposing organic matter in the uppermost six inches of the soil, so before you plant check out the soil.

When moist decent topsoil should crumble, look dark brown, and you should see leftover pieces of leaves, stems, and bark.  Strawberry roots absorb water and the by-products of decomposition taking place in the soil.

I started my Lantana strawberry patch by accident after I tossed scraps from quarts of cleaned fruit into my compost heap.  I spread my unfinished compost around the garden later that summer, and by spring strawberry plants had sprouted willy-nilly.  Nurserymen do not sell packets of strawberry seeds, but sprouted young crowns that grew off the tips of last year’s stems called runners.

I transplanted my “volunteer” crowns in 4-plant bundles about 12” apart in orderly rows.  By the fall they had spread out of control in half of one garden bed.  June-bearing plants are the rabbits of the strawberry world!  Typical strawberries make fruit the second year of life.

Most garden suppliers sell single strawberry plants at this time of the year, but prepare to put out some money.  You need a lot of plants to get a quart of strawberries in one picking.  I maintain about 200 plants, which I purchase mail-order for about $50.  This will produce plenty of fruit to eat, freeze, and can.  That many plants fill a raised bed about 3-feet wide by 20-feet long.  That’s not as much space as you might think.  Do your homework because some varieties put out few runners which raises the cost of replacement plants after they fruit.

According to Dr. Stein, most spring-bearing strawberry varieties grow well in this area.  Later in the year those fat “Mexican” strawberries we buy from Texas grocery stores are mostly a variety called Chandler.  If you want to plant in the fall look around for Chandler, Sequoia or Douglas strawberries that do well in the north central part of the state.

All strawberries like Texas’ full summer sun, but their roots like cooler temperatures, and plenty of water.  My rule of thumb is: if the leaves aren’t standing tall, at attention, they need water.  Take the hose and keep watering until they stand up and say “Hello there!”  It will happen before your very eyes.  Growers feed them 1-2 inches of water a day during their season

Mulching is a must so plant smart by mixing LOTS of organic matter–compost or well rotted (no stink) manure–in the soil under the mulch.  Professionals recommend we plant the rows 3-4 feet apart.  Due to limited space I planted about 18” apart which gave me room to crow hop between rows.  I planted green and bulb onions in the irrigation ditch between the rows.  Consider planting peas and beans between strawberry rows too.

Mulch does two things for strawberry plants, (a) it cools the ground around the roots, and (b) it keeps the berries off the damp soil while they ripen to that succulent ruby red color that calls out, “Pick me!”

To keep the number of spring-bearing plants under control, and to encourage fruiting, cut off the runners once a week all summer.  Any scissors will work.  Cut the runners off at their base then toss in the compost heap.

In the autumn I let one set of new runners form and root into new small plants which I use to replenish my stock of plants the next spring.  If you want more plants, save more runners.  It is okay to position the tip of a runner to root where you want it to grow.  This is called layering.  New plants transplant with ease as long as you keep the soil moist for them.

A word to the wise: strawberries turn sweet when they turn red.  Pink berries are not sweet berries so resist the urge to pick too early.

About The Author

Noelle Hood

Noelle is our Resident Green Thumb and a Texas Agri-Life Master Gardener.

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