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The Many Faces of Strawberries

Q. I want to grow strawberries. Which variety produces the earliest? I had strawberries at the last place we lived and it took two years before the plants produced. Is this how long it always takes? And which kinds bear the most fruit?

    ---Alex in Port Royal (Central) PA
Two summers ago I planted ever-bearing strawberries and had lots of good-tasting, nicely shaped fruits. Last summer, I also had lots of good tasting berries, but they were not nicely shaped; in fact, they were downright ugly. Is this some type of food or vitamin deficiency? Is there anything I can do to prevent it? I want them to look beautiful!
    ---Judy in Port Angeles, Washington
I'm not sure how to care for my Ozark Everbearing Strawberries. They were producing great last season until a big hailstorm tore them up pretty good. The plants came back but the berries were pretty much finished for the year. I just let the runners go to do their own thing, but I guess I'll have to pull or cut the old plants at some point? I would be most appreciative of any information you can pass on. I have a lot to learn. Thanks,
    ----Sue in SW VA (about 55 miles from Roanoke, 7 miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway in a lovely little holler)
Hi Mike! What fertilizer will make my strawberries taste sweeter?
    ---Ronald in Malta (Europe)
A. It's hard to believe I've made it this far without doing a big piece on strawberries, but it looks like my luck has finally run out. Maybe I've avoided the topic because I don't grow them personally. I prefer my small fruits to appear up in the air, like on my raspberry and blueberry plants, where I have a chance of getting to them before my army of never-ending slugs.

But we wrote about them quite a bit back when I was the Editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, so here's what I came up with going back over those old stories and reading some good State Extension Bulletins on strawberry growing.

First, there is no single {quote} "strawberry", as home gardeners can produce these tasty fruits on three very different kinds of plants. (Now I remember why I've been ducking this question for so long. Hey; I got a great idea! Whataya say we talk about eggplants? They're fun to grow, right?)

OK, OK: The three kinds are June-bearing, ever-bearing and day-neutral.

June bearers are the big suckers you see in the supermarket most of the time; the berries are huge and the plants spread wildly by 'runners' on the surface of the soil. These big tasty berries were bred for commercial use, and so produce a big flush all at once, generally within a two to three week harvest window. BUT there are early, mid, and late season varieties, so you can stretch the harvest quite a bit by planting some of each type. These are the patches that can last for decades if you're lucky.

Ever-bearing berries are, like most terms in horticulture, an outright lie. They're genetically primed to produce the most fruits with twelve hours of daylight, so you get some pretty big runs in late Spring and early Fall (much like with raspberries), and a smattering over the summer. They don't send out many runners, the patches don't last very long and the berries are smaller than those big June guys.

Day-neutral strawberries are actually more ever-bearing than ever-bearers, producing small numbers of berries all season long. They don't like hot weather, and so do much better in the North than the South. As with ever-bearers, the berries are smaller, the plants don't spread as wildly and the patches are more ephemeral than those of the June bearing varieties.

You can harvest ever-bearing and day-neutral types at the end of their first season (after removing any flowers that form for the first month or two after planting). You're not supposed to harvest any June bearers their first year, pulling off any flowers that do appear to insure big strong plants for the future, a common tactic for long-lived fruits. Stick with the plan and your June bearing patch can last a long time.

Which type produces the most berries? Even though they have a shorter season, most experts feel you'll get more poundage per season from June bearing types. Plant an early, mid and late season variety, and you'll get a pretty long harvest as well.

Those "ugly" second year ever-bearers could have been under-pollinated; the more bees around, the better shaped the fruits will be. A hot summer would also stress the fruits. So try and attract more pollinators and have a heavy hand with the water if a heat wave hits.

Lack of sweetness could be poor variety choice or picking too early; some varieties color up nice and red before their sugars catch up, so be patient. Chemical fertilizers also dilute flavor, so feed only with compost or a gentle organic fertilizer.

Maintenance: Beginning in year three, you should run a lawn mower over June bearing patches after they're done producing for the summer. When day neutrals and ever bearing types become less productive after a few years, replace the plants.

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