There’s nothing so delicious as the first-picked perfectly ripe strawberry of the season.
Ours are still green, but they are being well pollinated and they are growing fast.
All of our berries are in beds four feet wide and 25 feet long. The beds are six feet apart on both sides and on the ends. This way, we can reach clear into the center of each bed and the space between them can be mowed in two passes. The beds are oriented North-South for maximum sun exposure.
For the strawberries, we covered the beds in black plastic and cut holes for the plants. The plastic has a number of functions. It acts as mulch to keep prevent weeds from overwhelming the strawberries. It helps retain moisture in the soil by slowing evaporation. It helps keep the soil warmer in the fall and spring. It helps keep the berries clean. Plastic is appropriate for annual crops like strawberries, but not for crops like blueberries that are permanent.
Strawberries like fertile soil, so we added cow and chicken manure and tilled it all in. This was the first and last time the bed will be tilled. From here on out, we will add manure and other organic material on top of the bed and then let the plant roots, assisted by worms and other creatures, keep the soil loose. Our chickens are turned out into the garden every winter to help maintain the soil, but we can’t do that with the strawberries because they are planted in September and ripen in early May.
There are a host of methods for growing strawberries. We chose to grow ours as annuals (which means we replace the plants every year) and to buy and plant plugs in September. Growing the berries as annuals has a number of advantages, including that we can rotate the beds so that pathogens don’t build up in the soil. This method also helps assure maximum productivity per square foot of planting space used.
Our supplier here in Virginia has plugs available starting September 1, and we try to get the plugs transplanted into their beds as soon as we pick them up. The berries have a couple of months to get established before winter so they have a head-start in spring. When nighttime temperatures are pretty consistently near freezing, we put cloth row covers over the beds. The primary function of the row covers is to keep the leaves from freezing, but they also moderate the temperature of the soil so the plants continue to grow slowly through the cold months.
Plant spacing is important. If the plants are crowded they will not be as healthy or productive. We plant two rows in each bed. The plugs are spaced about 18 inches apart in the rows and there are about two feet between rows in each bed. This way each plant has plenty of room to spread out and get maximum sunlight. Adequate air flow around the plants helps prevent mold problems.
When nighttime temperatures are pretty consistently above freezing in March, we remove the row covers but keep them handy to use when snow or freezing temperatures are forecast. Frost protection is important in the spring because the plants are blooming during that time and a hard frost can cause the blossoms to drop and a reduced crop. You want the blooms to be pollinated, so you can’t just keep the berries covered all the time. We’ve already uncovered and re-covered our berries about four times this spring.
Of course, if you don’t have the time or space gardenting, you can always stop by our roadside stand. We offer eggs from our chickens, honey from our bees, and seasonal produce from our gardens.