Strawberries are tough to grow for a few reasons. For all the work and planning they require, the harvesting season is pretty brief. Here in Zone 6, we plant strawberries in the early spring, to be harvested by end of May, and June in the case of some varieties. Strawberry plants are susceptible to viruses, fungus, nematodes, aphids, grubs, beetles; and of course gray mold. And if not well fertilized, your strawberries that do survive may be quite small, much less so than the pesticide-sprayed ones purchased at the grocery store.
Despite this – don’t be discouraged! If you enjoy a challenge, and would love some fresh-picked berries atop your cereal in the morning or served with delicious, whipped cream for a treat — then by all means try your hand at growing strawberries the organic way!
Some tips we found for successfully growing strawberries in NJ Zone 6 without chemicals and pesticides:
Get good plants. Purchase your strawberry plants from a reputable source such as a local nursery known for high quality. Try to select disease-resistant varieties.
The early bird gets the strawberry. Put your plants in the ground as soon as the spring thaw happens.
Give them room. Plant your strawberry plants 20 inches apart, in rows that are 3 to 4 feet wide, to provide walking room when tending to and harvesting plants.
Lots of sun. Plant in a location that gets at least 8 to 10 hours of sunlight per day. Any less sun, and your plants won’t fruit.
Use raised beds. Drainage is critical to ward off the aforementioned rot, mold, fungus and disease. Raised beds will insulate the plants in cooler temperatures, and provide sufficient area for the roots to spread and work their way into the soil. The raised strawberry beds will be able to hold just the right amount of water. Finally – strawberry plants are invasive. Best to confine them in a wood-framed, raised bed so they don’t take over the rest of your veggie garden!
Protect them with… straw! They don’t call them strawberries for nothing. In cold weather, a layer of straw will protect young plants. Later on in the growing season, the straw will serve as a ground cover and keep the berries from coming into direct contact with the ground where they can pick up disease, bugs and too much moisture which causes mold and rot.
Rotate your crop. Do not plant strawberries in the same area of your yard from one year to the next. Also do not plant them in a spot where tomatoes, eggplant or peppers have grown in the previous year.
Moist is a must. Water strawberry plants 1 inch per week at the roots. Said another way: keep the ground moist beneath your growing strawberry plants (I never understood how to determine what “inches” of water actually means).
Fertilize well. Fertilize the soil with aged manure and/or compost before planting in early spring. Fertilize again after each harvest, and cover with 2 inches of compost. Also apply fish emulsion – fertile soil makes for more flavorful berries!
For the best yield and longest harvesting period, try planting a few different varieties of strawberries.
I remember my mother tending to her strawberry patch in our yard growing up. She mentioned a particular type of strawberry called Everberry. These do not actually “continuously” bear fruit, but produce once in the spring time and again in the early fall, for about 2 weeks each time.
Then there are June Bearers – the most common variety of strawberry plant that produce a larger-sized berry over a period of 2 to 3 weeks. The first year you plant June Bearers, you may be disappointed to learn that they don’t even give you berries – you have to wait until they come back and the plants re-establish themselves the following spring.
A variety called Day-Neutral strawberries, will bear fruit the first spring they’re planted. However, their berries will be smaller than an inch.
Finally, there are Alpine strawberries – you may have spotted these tiny, oddly-shaped berries growing wild. Yes – they are edible. In fact, Alpine strawberries are considered a delicacy because of their delicious, intense wild-berry flavor, and also because the plants produce sporadically – only a few berries at a time.
As with all types of garden produce, new varieties of strawberries are being bred all the time. You may find a type that is especially virus or nematode-resistant, bears fruit earlier or later in the season, and so forth. If you decide to grow strawberries this spring, check out which types of Early Season, Mid Season and Late Season plants are available so that you can prolong your fruit-bearing time so as to get the most from your strawberry-tending effort.
When do strawberries begin to bear fruit?
Generally during late spring, for a period of 10 to 14 days. Also, the previously mentioned Ever Berry will produce fruit for a second period of around 2 weeks, in the early fall.
Tips for picking and storing:
30 days after your strawberry plants produce flowers, they will bear fruit. Pick ripe berries every 2 to 3 days. Wait until the berry is red and fleshy, as strawberries will not continue to ripen once picked.
Line a shallow container with a paper towel, or use absorbent cardboard. Layer just-picked strawberries shallowly, so as to allow for good drainage. Leave hulls on and store in the refrigerator without washing, until ready to serve. This will prolong the shelf life of your strawberries that you worked so hard to cultivate, and prevent them from growing mold.