Strawberries

Toki Oshima drawing
Toki Oshima drawing

Strawberry Plugs & Varieties

By Sue Smith-Heavenrich

If you get to the Common Ground Fair this year, look for the strawberry alley crops. Last fall, Jack Kertesz put in a few beds of strawberries between young apple trees in MOFGA’s demonstration orchard. He thinks that growing strawberries between newly planted trees might provide some income while waiting for the trees to produce.

Jack put in four raised beds, each 4 feet wide and 100 feet long, plunked down $260 for 1,000 strawberry plugs, and spent the first week of September planting them. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get a good fruit set,” he notes. “It could be the lack of irrigation and the unusually dry spring. Or it could be that the plants didn’t have enough time in the fall to build up ample reserves before winter set in.” In a conversation with Eric Sideman this June, they wondered whether an earlier planting date, perhaps late August, might be necessary on this particular site.

To the west, and over a couple of states, Paul and Sandy Arnold have fall strawberry planting down to a science. Their organic farm, located about an hour north of Albany in Argyle, N.Y., boasts a frost-free season from May 31 to Sept. 21. For the past four years, the Arnolds have been experimenting with the “annual bed system” of strawberry culture. It’s patterned after the “plasticulture” system, where beds are covered by black plastic mulch. “Only,” say the Arnolds, “we don’t use the plastic.”

Moving to Annual Bed Production

The Arnolds have been growing strawberries for at least a decade, using the traditional matted row system: They put the plants in the ground in the spring, weed, water, mulch – and pull off all the blossoms. The following June they harvest the berries, mow the tops, till the edges of the beds to cut the runners, weed and mulch. Most strawberry beds produce well for three years.

With the “plasticulture” system, they plant strawberry plugs in the fall, mulch them over winter, and harvest the berries the next spring – up to two weeks earlier than those grown in the traditional matted culture. The Arnolds like fall planting because they can get a cover crop – or sometimes up to two cash crops – off the land before planting the berries. Imagine harvesting spinach and beans before turning the beds over to strawberries.

If you treat the strawberries as an annual crop and turn the bed under after harvest, you build a soil that’s rich in organic matter from the plants and straw mulch. You can then plant another cash crop for additional income, too.

According to Dr. Joseph A. Fiola at Rutgers University, late summer/early fall planting also gives plants relief from heat, drought and the disease pressure of midsummer. The Arnolds agree: The annual system does allow for good rotations to keep insect and disease cycles in check, and the nature of the open planting allows for good air circulation, minimizing gray mold.

Most of all, this system gives higher yields per acre than a traditional matted row system, and the Arnolds have records to prove it. Their average yield in the past four years has been 13,500 pounds/acre. Even in their worst year, an extremely wet one, they harvested 9,000 pounds/acre – an increase of 3,000 pounds/acre over the matted row system. They direct market their produce, selling strawberries at $3.00/pint, and figure they earn somewhere near $36,000/acre. That’s a good return, they say, considering that their initial investment is $2,600/acre. At 17,400 plugs/acre, that’s a lot of strawberries.

Planting Fall Strawberries

If you’re going to plant in the fall, you need to order strawberry “plugs” or “tips” ahead of time. Spring is best, say the Arnolds, because you have more choice of varieties. Though strawberry tips are cheaper, the Arnolds opt for the rooted plugs because they’re easy to plant and are reliable. They request a shipping date for the first week of September and plant the plugs as soon as they arrive.

“One year we tried planting the last week of August,” they write. “It was a problem because the strawberry plants sent out runners.” The idea of fall planting is to make sure the plants have just enough time to establish bushy plants with multiple crowns but not enough time to send out runners to start new plants. As it turns out, planting the first week in September allows ample time for the strawberries to establish themselves, at least in their zone 4 region.

First you need to prepare the soil. Put in new plants where no strawberries have grown for at least three years. Make sure that you don’t plant strawberries following tomatoes or potatoes, as they might pick up Verticillium wilt.

The growers at Jersey Asparagus suggest that home gardeners work the soil to 8 inches deep, getting out all weeds and grasses. They suggest raised beds 6 to 8 inches high, about 4 feet wide and 25 feet long for 50 plants set in double rows.

The Arnolds do not use black plastic, even though “all the experts” agree that plastic is necessary for success. Instead, they hook up their potato hilling equipment and hill up rows 4 feet apart. They apply a thick (4- to 6-inch) layer of chopped, weed-free hay or straw. If they use hay, it’s their own – a second cutting – to assure there are no weed seeds. Like the recommended black plastic, straw mulch suppresses weeds, conserves moisture and helps keep the fruit clean. It also does what plastic cannot do – adds organic matter to the soil.

The Arnolds plant the strawberry plugs by hand, directly through the mulch. Sounds easy enough, until you try it. Kertesz said that though planting the plugs is a real treat, compared to setting bare-root plants, planting into a donut-sized hole in the mulch was a slow process.

The Arnolds space their plants 12 inches apart in staggered double rows, with rows ending up about 10 inches apart. They irrigate in the fall to help establish the plants. When night temperatures drop into the 40s, they put floating row cover over the plants. They leave it on until it’s time to cover the strawberries with the straw, in November. Then, they remove the row cover, blow on clean, chopped straw, and don’t worry about the plants again until spring. In March, when the straw is no longer frozen, they rake it into the paths and put the row cover back over the plants.

Other growers apply floating row cover as soon as daytime temperatures drop to 55 degrees or lower, and keep the row cover on all winter. The floating row cover warms the plants and excludes insects – but you’ve got to remember to take off the row cover when the plants blossom, because fruit production depends on pollination by insects. The Arnolds check their plants, and when 10% of them are flowering, they take off the row cover – but keep it handy for covering the plants during cold nights. They also use overhead irrigation to combat frost damage.

Renovating Beds for a Second Year

Kertesz wants to try renovating MOFGA’s beds for a second year of production. The Arnolds, too, experimented with that on a small scale and found that although the yield was good, the beds were too weedy and the quality of the berries wasn’t so high, so they are sticking with the annual cropping method. Charlie O’Dell, extension horticulturist at Virginia Tech, notes however that some farmers have reported higher yields their second year. The biggest problem for “plasticulture” farmers looking to extend production one more year is, ironically, the plastic, which gets in the way of mowing. For folks using straw, this has never been a problem.

After the berries are harvested, you need to give the plants a “haircut” with your mower set at a 3-inch mowing height. To cut back the runners, till the outside of the beds one year, and if you’re going into a third year, run the tiller down the center of the beds. Spread lots of compost, remember to cover with straw mulch for winter protection, and don’t forget to weed.

The Arnolds will be among the featured growers at MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference during the first weekend in November. For more information, see the Farmer to Farmer schedule in the MOFGA Notes section of this paper.

About the author: Sue Smith-Heavenrich gardens with her husband and their two sons in Candor, New York.

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Strawberry Plugs & Varieties

For Northeast growers, the best option for fall planting is to use plugs that are propagated from actively growing runner tips. The cost for plugs usually runs somewhere near $130/1,000 plants, for those buying in bulk. Home gardeners will spend considerably more – $47.50 for 50 from Jersey Asparagus. If this is too pricey, consider planting freshly-dug multiple crowns from a “mother” plant, suggests Dr. Joseph A. Fiola (Rutgers Fruit Research & Extension Center, 283 Route 539, Cream Ridge NJ 08514; 609-758-7311).

Fiola’s favorite varieties for fall planted berries are Allstar, Noreaster, Seneca, Earlyglow and Latestar. Jersey Asparagus (www.jerseyasparagus.com; 105 Porchtown Rd., Pittsgrove NJ 08318; 1-800-499-0013) offers Chandler and Sweet Charlie. Balsillie Fruit Farm (www.thefruitwagon.com/; 793 E. County Road 50, RR 1, Harrow, Ontario, Canada N0R 1G0) add to the list of their favorites: Cavendish, Kent and Camarosa.

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