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I have a fondness for strawberries. I still remember, as a very small child, when I was given my first piece of garden to tend. It was all mine, to do anything I wanted with, and I didn’t have to share.  In addition to the garden bed, I was gifted a dozen bare-root strawberry plants to plant in my new garden.

Strawberries were the first food crop I ever grew

Strawberries were the first food crop I ever grew

If I wanted strawberries though, first I’d have to plant them.  Then I’d have to learn to take care of them. I would need to keep out the slugs, water the plants, pinch out the runners, and of course, pick the fruits when they were ripe. Due to runner production, it wasn’t long before that first dozen plants became 12-dozen, which resulted in a LOT of fruit after a couple of seasons!  It’s probably fair to say that growing strawberries is what first got me hooked on gardening.  It also helped me acquire a taste for strawberry-rhubarb pies…but I digress.

So last year I was a little disappointed in myself, because our strawberry bed in the garden was clearly suffering from a severe case of neglect.  The plants were getting overgrown, the bird netting was rapidly deteriorating from the sun, and I’d neglected to top-dress the soil before the plants started to bloom.

The bird netting was as much to keep the chickens out, as the robins!

The bird netting was as much to keep the chickens out, as the robins!

Last year at least half of the berries were subsequently lost to a combination of slugs, birds, and squirrels, but as strawberries are entirely too good to waste, I’m determined that won’t happen again this year.

When we first installed the raised beds in the garden the strawberry box was the first to be planted. Each season we amended the soil, and maintained a layer of fresh straw under the forming fruits to keep them off the damp soil beneath. The plants have grown well, and multiplied over the last few seasons, but this season it was clear this bed really needed a complete overhaul if we wanted to continue to get any quantity of fruit.

This is how the bed looked earlier this week.  What a mess.

This is how the bed looked earlier this week. What a mess.

The bed was getting quite weedy after our December rains, and the plants had a lot of dead leaves that needed to be trimmed.  Not to mention the soil in this raised bed was exhausted, and needed to be replenished.

At first I just intended to work the existing bed over, but this bed is quite exposed at the edge of our south slope, and it can be challenging to protect the plants from the blistering west sun during runs of excessively warm weather. So, as peppers or tomatoes would probably be better suited to this location, I decided, as we have a few empty beds awaiting spring planting, to move the entire strawberry collection to a new bed.

Most commercial growers in this area treat strawberries as an annual crop. The advantage to that is in a garden like ours we could simply incorporate the strawberries into a standard rotation scheme. Like most gardeners though, we treat our strawberry plants as perennials. We leave them in the ground year over year, and only cull older, and/or less productive, plants.

Older, less productive, plants were removed

Older, less productive, plants were removed first

Relocating the strawberries would mean I had to dig up every single plant, which was more time consuming than I originally intended for this project, but the advantage was I could site the plants in a better location, and by moving the plants, reduce the potential for build up of diseases in the soil. By culling out the older, less productive plants, and reworking the soil, the reward should be that our fruit yields will increase over the next couple of seasons.

First I pulled out the plants in the existing bed, sorting them by variety into large empty pots, that were labeled. Dead leaves were trimmed off, and only healthy plants with strong root systems were saved. Damaged or spindly plants were composted.

Plants with strong healthy root systems were saved, and the remainder were sent to the compost

Plants with strong healthy root systems were saved, and the remainder were sent to the compost

Of course, during this entire process I was stirring up all sorts of delectable chicken treats, so it wasn’t too long before our resident tilling-and-pest-control crew reported for duty.

"We heard you needed some help?"

“We heard you needed some help?”

"I don't know, it looks like a lot of work to me"

“I don’t know, it looks like a lot of work to me”

Once all the plants were processed, it was time to replenish the beds with some fresh compost.

That's Better

“That’s better, but the soil level still looks low to me”

Between the turkeys, chickens, and goats, we have no shortage of compostable material for our gardens. However, we also augment our own farm-generated compost with material from our local equestrian center a few times a year.

We have a couple of small mountains of compost that help to keep the gardens well fertilized

We have a couple of small mountains of compost that help to keep the gardens well fertilized

Once well composted, this is far better than any compost you’re likely to find in a bag. It’s much cheaper than buying compost, and has virtually eliminated our use of supplemental fertilizers too!

A few more wheelbarrows-full and the beds were ready for planting

A few more wheelbarrows-full and the beds were ready for planting

Finally, with the bed prepared, it was time to replant. At the end of the day I’d planted a total of 84 strawberry plants, including two new varieties to the farm this year.

It doesn't look like much, but in a few weeks the plants will leaf out, and fill in the new bed

It doesn’t look like much, but in a few weeks the plants will leaf out, and fill in the new bed

We have high hopes for this berry bed this spring!

We’ve recently been asked by a few of our readers which strawberry variety they should plant, or why don’t their plants produce a large crop? When selecting strawberries it’s important to keep in mind that not all strawberries are created equal.  Some are better adapted to growing in a particular region, some are more flavorful than others, some keep better than others.

If you make jam, you might prefer to plant more June-bearing varieties

If you make jam, you might prefer to plant more June-bearing varieties

In regards to fruit production, the most important thing to know about strawberries is whether they are June-bearing, day-neutral, or everbearing varieties.  Note that some retailers treat day-neutral and everbearing varieties the same, but they are in fact a little different.

June-bearing: These plants produce a single large crop once per year, usually in the early summer, and the fruits on average tend to be larger than day-neutral varieties

Day-neutral: these varieties are at their peak production in early summer, but then continue to sporadically produce fruit through to fall, as late as October in milder climates. Day-neutral types are particularly well adapated to growing in Northern California, but plants should be replaced every 2-3 years to maintain production.

Everbearing: this term is something of a misnomer, in that everbearing strawberries tend to produce two distinct flushes of fruit per year. One in early summer, another in the fall, and there may be a few scant berries in between.  Crops are usually smaller than June-bearing varieties though.

The chart below summarizes some of the most commonly grown strawberry cultivars by production type.

Commonly grown cultivars by production type

Commonly grown cultivars by production type (click image to enlarge)

Here’s a printable PDF version of our reference chart for anyone that might find it useful.

In the home garden knowing whether a strawberry type is June-bearing, day-neutral, or everbearing, helps when choosing an assortment of plants to ensure berry production throughout the growing season.  However, if you make jam, or pies, you might prefer to have more of the crop ready all at once, and elect to plant predominantly June-bearing varieties.

You can think of strawberries a little like tomatoes, where the June-bearers are the determinate type, the all-at-once paste tomatoes.  Whereas the day-neutral and everbearing berries are more like the indeterminate tomatoes.  You get an initial crop, and the plants continue to produce through the remainder of the season.

Up until this season we’ve been primarily growing ‘Seascape’ (day-neutral), and ‘Eversweet’ (everbearing) strawberries.  Both are well adapted to growing in this region.

The plants have produced well, but we were looking for a higher spring yielding variety

The plants have produced well, but we were looking for a higher spring yielding variety

Although production has been acceptable throughout the season, we’ve felt the initial spring crop has been somewhat lacking in volume. This year we’ve added two new varieties, ‘Albion’ (day-neutral), and ‘Sequoia’ (June-bearing). The addition of June-bearing ‘Sequoia’ should help to give us a more robust crop of spring berries, along with the first crop of ‘Eversweet’. Then we’ll see some mid-season fruits with day-neutral ‘Seascape’ and ‘Albion’. Then a second crop of ‘Eversweet’ rounding out the season with a final flush of fruit in September-October.

So, with the soils recharged, the beds replanted, now we wait for berry season to get into full swing. It won’t be long before the first blooms appear…

Strawberry blooms hold a lot of promise

Strawberry blooms hold a lot of promise

…and then by late spring, we hope to be harvesting more of these!

Garden-fresh strawberry

We’re so looking forward to our spring crop of sweet, succulent, strawberries!

Now my next task is to add some compost to the rhubarb patch!  Do you grow strawberries?  Do you have a favorite variety?  What’s your favorite way to use them?