The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Maintaining a strawberry bed

Care of your first year plants
Strawberry flowerYour new plants will try to bloom their first spring.  For best results, carefully pick every flower off the plants so they'll put their energy into growing healthy roots and leaves instead.  Yes, that means you won't get to taste your first berry until next year --- it will be worth the wait.  Using my growing system, this first year is the only time you'll have to pick off flower buds since you'll plant new strawberries in the fall from here on out.  (Fall planted berries have generally established themselves enough that you can let them fruit their first spring.)

After trying to bloom, the strawberry plants will send out lots of runners.  Those of you following the hill system will want to snip back runners during your usual weeding sessions.  You don't need any fancy equipment as long as you catch the runners when they're young and tender --- just pinch them off between your thumb and forefinger.

Strawberry plants often keep green leaves through most or all of the winter, but you'll want to put some mulch over top of the plants once the rest of your garden has died back.  Freezing and thawing can otherwise push your berries' shallow roots up out of the ground and kill the plants.  Be sure to rake the mulch back from the tender new leaves in early spring and topdress the bed with a healthy coating of compost, topped off with the old mulch plus a new layer of straw.

Flowering and fruiting
Frost-nipped strawberry flowerAfter patiently waiting 12 months, you're ready for your strawberry harvest.  This time, leave all of the blooms and keep an eye on the weather.  Late spring freezes can damage strawberry flowers, so I toss row cover fabric over top of the plants if lows are expected to drop below 30 degrees once flower buds have opened.  You'll know your flowers were damaged if the centers change from yellow to black.  All is not lost, though --- strawberry flowers tend to open a few at a time over the course of a week or two, so losing the earliest flowers will just allow the plant to put more energy into later fruits.

Chocolate strawberry shortcakeWhile watering is important throughout the growing season, the time between fruiting and harvest is a critical period.  Strawberries need an inch of water per week, and if the weather isn't cooperating, you have to irrigate.  Otherwise, just watch and wait, picking your strawberries when they are bright red on the outside and at least slightly red clear through.  You'll need to set aside time to harvest strawberries at least every other day, but daily harvesting is better.  Berries are sweetest in the afternoon and are least tasty if picked right after a rain (or watering session.)

If you ever get sick of grazing on fresh strawberries, Weekend Homesteader: August tells how to make peach leather, a recipe that can be easily tweaked to produce the most delicious strawberry leather you've ever tasted.  Or check out recipes for strawberry freezer jam and chocolate strawberry shortcake.

Renovating and expanding the strawberries
A newly transplanted strawberry After gorging on strawberries in May or June, it's time to start plucking runners again.  This year, you don't need to be quite as careful about removing every single runner because you'll want to expand your patch.  By the middle of summer, missed runners will have rooted and turned into new strawberry plants.  When the weather forecast promises three or more rainy days in a row, head out into the garden with your trowel and carefully dig up all of these baby strawberry plants, then start a second patch in a new garden bed.  This is another time when irrigation is critical since summer-planted strawberries can easily wither up and die before they get their feet under them.

If you use my method of expanding the patch in the late summer, you can skip this step, but otherwise you'll need to renovate your bed in the fall.  Many sources recommend mowing off the strawberry leaves, but I find that step unnecessary.  Instead, I simply rip out plants that have gotten too close together, leaving at least one foot of mulched soil between each plant.

Strawberry bed ready for renovation
Strawberry bed after renovation

Weekend Homesteader paperbackI've found that flavor and vigor begin to diminish after a strawberry patch has fruited once, twice, or three times.  (How many seasons you can eke out of the plants depends on the quality of your soil.)  I generally eat two years' worth of strawberries from a bed, then rip the plants out and rotate the bed back into the general vegetable garden.  As long as I transplanted runners the previous year, I'll have a fresh bed ready to produce more berries the following spring.

This week's lunchtime series is exerpted from Weekend Homesteader: February, which is available for 99 cents from Amazon's kindle store.  The ebook also includes a primer on choosing and caring for a backyard flock of chickens, information on buying in bulk, and tips for creating your own apprenticeship.  If you enjoy the book, please consider leaving me a review.

This post is part of our Easy Berries lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Hi Anna, just wondering, don't you think there's something to be said for letting the strawberries bloom the first year? You may not get as much root growth, but it's an important part of the plants' life cycle to bloom and produce seed, right?
Comment by Phil Fri Jan 20 11:45:34 2012

I think of letting strawberries fruit the first year as similar to letting an animal give birth when it's not fully grown. (Think of a 13 year old girl having a baby --- it's going to be very tough on her and will probably stunt her growth.)

June bearing strawberries actually do most of their reproduction from runners, not seeds. They're likely to set some runners no matter how hard you try to keep them all picked off. So you don't want the first year plant to stress itself out by reproducing both ways.

Comment by anna Fri Jan 20 14:17:09 2012
I understand. And it's probably not a big deal either way. I just tend to go the more natural route, but I guess we're already doing something unnatural by planting a bunch of strawberries, so it may make sense to coax them along a bit. I still think the plant knows better than us how it ought to grow. Have a good weekend, Phil
Comment by Phil Sat Jan 21 13:16:59 2012
I like to stick with nature whenever possible too. But what you have to understand is that in the wild, strawberries would be setting new runners in June and July. So those plants would have all summer to bulk up, in which case they'd be quite ready to bloom the next spring. (That's why I fall plant if I don't have to worry about drought.) By planting out of season, we're promising to make sure the plant wants a year before fruiting.
Comment by anna Sat Jan 21 13:41:53 2012
Anna, in spring,do you just compost and mulch, covering the dormant or just sprouting strawberries, or do you compost and mulch around each plant being careful not to bury it? I have always done the latter, but I suspect I'm unnecessarily making the job much more difficult and time consuming. Thanks!
Comment by Dave V Tue Apr 9 20:49:42 2013
Dave V --- I'm a bit OCD in the garden, so it doesn't seem too crazy to carefully compost and mulch around each plant. You might get away with just dumping it all on if you did so in the fall, but our plants usually keep photosynthesizing for most of the winter, so you'd lose that bit of extra energy.
Comment by anna Wed Apr 10 12:52:34 2013

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