I have been growing and helping others grow organic strawberries for many years. While the segment of the population that is concerned about how their food is grown is still a minority, more and more people are discovering the benefits of sustainable agriculture. And, as more and more gardeners test out their green thumbs, gardens all around the world are finding strawberry plants inhabiting space next to herbs and other garden plants. Going green and growing healthy food go well together; and since virtually everyone loves strawberries, this post will help those who want to eschew the conventional methods (which are somewhat notorious for producing dirty strawberries) for potentially safer ones. Plus, since no one wants to trade a basket full of bright, plump strawberries for just a hand full, the four secrets I'll fill you in on momentarily will help you get started on your journey of successfully growing organic strawberries!
First Things First!
Before getting to the secrets, a few preliminaries are in order. There are some key decisions that have to be made prior to planting strawberry plants. You need to know which of the main types of strawberries you want to plant…
June-bearers are the most popular. Most of the commercially available cultivars are of this type. They produce a very large crop of very large fruits over the course of two to three weeks. There may be a few stragglers here and there, but they typically put out a big harvest and then stop. These are the berries you buy in the store.
Everbearers typically produce smaller berries than do the June-bearing types of strawberry plants, but they produce a main crop at the beginning of the season and again at the end of the growing season. Overall, however, they will produce a smaller overall yield, on average, than the aforementioned June-bearers.
Day-neutral strawberries produce small fruits continually throughout the growing season. The major benefit of these plants is the fact that you can walk out to your patch on any given day and find a few ripe strawberries ready to be picked. However, the major drawback is that there won't be a whole lot of them. While day-neutrals are typically chosen by indoor hydroponic strawberry growing operations, you will end up with a noticeably smaller yield than June-bearers, and significantly less overall harvest than the everbearers as well. If you aren't specifically choosing this third type for a predetermined reason, go with one of the other two.
Once you have landed on which type of strawberry plant you want to grow, you can either buy some plants from a local nursery or order them online. The varieties offered by your local nursery will likely be well-suited for your area. If you choose the ease and convenience of having them arrive at your door by ordering online, you can choose your variety and price shop for the best deals quickly and easily in this directory. If you need help choosing a suitable variety for your location, you can find your state and choose an appropriate variety from this list.
How Many Strawberry Plants Do You Need?
As a bare minimum, 6 or 7 plants are needed to provide an individual with enough strawberries to make the effort of planting and cultivation worthwhile. A family of 5 should look to procure between 30 and 35 plants in order to enjoy a sufficient quantity of fresh fruit. And, if you are planning on canning or making strawberry jam or other preserves, doubling the number of plants to 60 or more is necessary.
The Basics of Growing Strawberries
Strawberries are remarkably resilient. They can survive in many spots you wouldn't think possible. To get the best results, though, there are some basics you should know. Now, on to the secrets of growing organic strawberries!
The 4 Secrets to Growing Loads of Organic Strawberries!
1. Manage The Nitrogen
Strawberry plants have a higher relative nitrogen demand in the early spring and late fall. In early spring the plants are going through a highly energy-demanding period as they produce their strawberries and put out strawberry runners. Even if the runners are removed (see below!), nitrogen can run low quite quickly in organic strawberry beds. Using conventional methods, chemical fertilizers with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are easily added to buoy the needed nutrients and keep the berries coming. But, for the devotee of organic methods using the NPK chemical fertilizers is not an option. So, the first secret to growing loads of organic strawberries is to successfully keep nitrogen levels up in your berry planting.
To maintain productivity and nitrogen levels, you'll need to use organic fertilizers. Blood meal is a good option as it has 13% nitrogen. Other organic sources of nitrogen include fish meal, soy meal, and alfalfa meal. Feather meal is also a good source of nitrogen at 15%, but has very slow release rates. Aged manure is also a good source of nitrogen, but you have to be careful to not supply too much nitrogen to your strawberries as that can cause excess vegetative producti0n and fewer berries. Too much nitrogen can kill/burn up strawberries, however, so do not put raw, fresh chicken manure on strawberries (or any other extremely nitrogen-rich material).
2. Whack the Weeds
Organic farmers typically tremble when they hear the name of agriculture giant Monsanto: either with fear or anger or both. So, naturally (pun intended!), herbicides such as Roundup are anathema to those wishing to do things organically. Skipping out on those weed poisons ensures that the produce you pluck will be pure and free from potentially harmful molecules when you consume them. But, that means the weeds will sprout and mock you mercilessly.
The second secret of a prolific organic strawberry garden is to develop a habit of diligence when it comes to pulling weeds. Hand-pulling is the first resort of most non-chemical growers. Developing a schedule and sticking to it is important in the fight against unwanted growth. Shallow cultivation can also be successfully utilized. But, without chemical herbicides, if you want to haul in loads of fruit come harvest, it is absolutely essential that you keep on top of the weeds. There is an organic herbicide labeled for use with growing strawberries called GreenMatch Ex, but its use alone will not be sufficient to completely control the weeds. So, get your gardening gloves ready to go and pluck those weeds as soon as they show their ugly little heads.
3. Purge the Pests and Pathogens
Just as weeds are a particularly painful problem in organic strawberry beds, pests and pathogens can be particularly prickly as well. There is an abundance of potent poisons available to send such scourges to purgatory, but who wants to eat those residues? The secret to maintaining organic integrity while harvesting a healthy hoard is three-fold.
Avoid Problem Areas
Plant only disease-free, healthy plants in soils with good drainage and air circulation. Keep your plantings away from areas that may harbor large populations of mites or microbes detrimental to your strawberries. Managing weeds is also important as they can provide habitat for and harbor problem organisms as well. Mulching heavily underneath the leaves of your plants is also important. Soil, by its very nature, is home to legions of microbes. In many strawberry plantings, rain droplets splashing into dirt and thereby sending droplets of pathogen-infected wet mud up onto the vegetative components are the cause of disease and death. A heavy layer of mulch avoids this common problem.
Fungi species and many parasites find happy homes in the dead or decaying leaves that fall from strawberry plants over the course of their lives. Being vigilant to remove any dead or decaying plant matter from your beds will help minimize problems. While virtually impossible to completely eradicate even with conventional methods, strawberry pathogens can also be deterred by the use of diatomaceous earth. Frequent applications can reduce mite and other arthropod numbers by creating an inhospitable environment. Biopesticides like Serenade are also available, but are insufficient to eradicate pests as well. Managing them, however, is a critical secret for success.
Protecting your garden is also quite important. The primary way of protecting against the microscopic predators is through variety selection. If you live in a region that is wetter then most, be sure to select a variety that has at least some resistance to powdery mildew and other wet-loving fungi. Don't over-fertilize with nitrogen as many pests will be attracted to all the succulent tissues that come with too much nitrogen. And, of course, keep the fruit off the ground by mulching well and picking the fruit as soon as it is ripe. Remove any rotting fruit immediately! Bird netting or fencing of some sort is also a good idea to keep out the bigger pests like squirrels, birds, and rabbits.
4. Remove the Runners
This last secret is a general secret for all types of strawberry growing, not necessarily just organic growers. But, with the added difficulties of foregoing the powerful conventional chemicals, it is even more vital for the organic grower. Simply put, you have to remove the runners. As you weed your garden regularly, keep a keen eye out for your plants' attempts to clone themselves. When they put out runners, use your fingernails, scissors, or pruning shears to snip off the runners as soon as they can be identified.
Strawberry plants will spend themselves in their reproductive efforts. It is critical to guide your plants in the way you want them to be productive. Some strawberry plants will produce dozens of cloned daughter plants if left to themselves. All of those runners means energy is diverted away from producing strawberries, which is why you planted them in the first place! So, be sure to watch for the production of strawberry runners and sever them as soon as possible. The plants will respond by devoting more productive energy to developing those loads of organic strawberries I promised!
There are some good reasons to let a few runners develop as well, however. For more on that, be sure to read up on strawberry runners.
***And, if these 4 secrets have helped you prepare for your best garden ever, consider doing your friends and StrawberryPlants.org a favor by sharing this article with others using the buttons at the top.***
Enjoy the fruits of your labor, and good luck!
Top photo credit: Kelvin Wong