In North Carolina, fresh market strawberry production ranks third in the nation behind California and Florida with approximately 1,000 acres harvested each year. May is “Strawberry Month” and during this time, folks flock to pick-your-own strawberry farms, local produce stands, farmers markets and grocery stores with intentions to make jams, pies, smoothies or simply to gobble up these delectable berries.
Strawberries are a perennial plant requiring little space, are easy to grow and will last for several years. From as few as 25 transplants you can achieve an excess of 50 pounds after one year of planting. When choosing a site for your strawberry patch, make sure it receives direct sunlight for most of the day.
Three types of strawberries are readily available to the home gardener. June-bearing strawberries produce a large, concentrated crop in late spring. Everbearing types produce two smaller crops, one in late spring and a second lesser crop in early fall. The day-neutral plants are capable of producing fruit throughout most of the growing season but do best in Eastern North Carolina. Of the three types, June-bearing strawberries work best for Western North Carolina with consistent yields each year.
There are many strawberry varieties available, but it is best to select only varieties adapted to our area. Start with disease free plants from a reliable nursery. Generally, two to three varieties will be needed to extend the ripening season over a four- to five-week period. For the mountains, choose varieties such as Earliglow, Chandler, Apollo, Cardinal, Sunrise and Tennessee beauty. Newer varieties such as Bish (2002) and Galletta (2006) are disease-resistant and especially well suited to the upper Piedmont and mountain regions.
Plant 1-year old dormant plants about three or four weeks (mid-April) before the average date of the last frost. Do this after incorporating manure or one pound of 10-10-10 per 100 feet of row into the soil. Plant spacing will depend on the training system, but make sure plants are no less than 12 inches apart in rows 3 feet apart. Set each plant so the base of the bud is at the soil level. Spread the roots out, and firm the soil around them to prevent air pockets that may cause them to dry out.
Throughout the first year, remove all flower stems on the plants as soon as they appear. I know this seems hard to do but this practice will promote early and vigorous runner production that will bear the best fruit the following year. Control weeds with gentle hoeing throughout the growing season. During the winter months apply 3-4 inches of mulch such as hay, straw or pine needles for winter protection to prevent freezing and heaving of soil. In the springtime move half of the mulch in the row middles.
When picking strawberries in the second year, allow berries to develop a uniform red color. This visual cue will help you to know when the berry is at its highest sugar content and flavor. Harvest the berries carefully by the stems just above the caps to prevent bruising.
After harvest, apply a nitrogen fertilizer in August, such as 2 pounds of 10-10-10 per 100 feet of row to encourage flower bud development for next year. In the fall, consider renovating your strawberry patch to prevent overcrowding and to extend its lifespan. To renew a planting, consider mowing off and/or raking away leaves from plants and dispose of them (take your rotary lawn mower and mow over top of bed setting blade about 4 inches). Cut back rows with a rototiller or hoe to a strip 12-18 inches wide. Thin the plants about 6 inches apart leaving only the most healthy and vigorous plants.
For more tips on your strawberry patch, contact your local Extension Center at 586-4009 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christine Bredenkamp is NCSU horticulture extension agent for Jackson and Swain counties.