Although most modern strawberry varieties are a far cry visually from their small-fruited wild cousins, they are actually a species native to the Americas. Strawberries were first cultivated by indigenous people on both the northern and southern American continents.
However, the development of the commercial strawberries we know today is often credited to a French explorer who took home several specimens and crossed them in a European botanical garden. Over the years, plant scientists have crossed and recrossed strawberries to create the beautiful, glossy-red, utterly flavorless fruit that we now find on supermarket shelves.
Because most commercial strawberries are grown in California, Florida, and Mexico before being shipped to markets all over North America, they are primarily bred to maintain their visual appeal during transport. A fully ripe heirloom strawberry picked fresh from the plant wouldn’t last one day on a refrigerated truck because they are so full of sugar and juice that they bruise and turn to mush when agitated. Luckily, home gardeners can forget about the shipping quality and grow varieties bred specifically for aromatic flavor and sweetness.
June-Bearing vs. Everbearing There are many varieties of heirloom strawberries but all of them fall into one of two overarching categories: June-bearing and everbearing. As their names imply, June-bearing varieties produce one large crop all at once—usually around June—and everbearing varieties produce a steady crop of fruit throughout the year, weather permitting.
Which category you choose should depend on how you want to use your strawberries. If you want a handful of fruit every few days to eat fresh or throw on a salad, you should go with an everbearing variety. If you want to harvest a large crop all at once, you should select a June-bearing variety. On our homestead we use a mix of the two so we have a large harvest of strawberries to preserve in June and others to eat fresh throughout the growing season.
Planting Crowns Strawberries can be grown from seed, but this method won’t produce fruit until the second season. The most common method of growing strawberries is to plant “bare root” crowns. Bare root strawberry crowns are dormant strawberry plants that have been uprooted and preserved in a moist refrigerator. They can be purchased online, usually for less than $1 per plant, and shipped to your home. When your strawberry crowns arrive, you simply rehydrate them in a bucket of water and plant them in your garden-making sure not to bury the top of the crown so the leaves can emerge and begin to photosynthesize.
Growing Conditions In order to grow big, juicy strawberries, the plants require full sun. This means at least six hours of direct sunlight per day along with rich, well-draining soil. In commercial production, strawberries are grown in mulch covered with black plastic to reduce weed pressure and prevent the fruit from touching the soil. As a home gardener you can replicate this technique or use the method of yesteryear-straw mulch-which happens to be the strawberry’s namesake.
We plant our strawberry crowns about 6 to 9 inches apart in a diamond pattern and then tightly pack the space between them with straw mulch. We have experimented with inoculating the straw with oyster mushroom spawn in the past, but it only provided a meager mushroom harvest due to the intense sunlight on our strawberry patch.
Strawberries are perennial in most regions of North America and they usually produce larger yields in their second year of growth. Some people recommend pulling the flowers off in the first growing season to stimulate root growth, but if you’re eager to harvest your first berries, you don’t need to do this. When your strawberry flowers lose their petals and the fruit begins to form, make sure they’re receiving at least one inch of water per week so the plant has adequate moisture to swell the fruit.
Strawberry Runners As the season progresses, most strawberry varieties will begin to form “runners,” which are branches off of the main crown that will touch down a few inches from the plant and form their own roots. Once they have established roots, these new plants can either be uprooted to share with a friend or you can simply allow them to continue filling in your strawberry patch. If you leave them to spread on their own, I recommend removing the older plants every few years to prevent the patch from becoming overcrowded, which can result in reduced yields.
Pests and Diseases Like many other soft-bodied fruits, strawberries are an attractive target for everything from birds to mammals to insects. On our homestead, the primary offenders are small birds, chipmunks, and squirrels. The best way to protect your strawberries from those critters is to cover them with plastic bird netting or a structure built from wooden stakes and chicken wire. I’ll never forget the look of sheer frustration on a chipmunk's face that had been decimating our strawberries after I covered the patch in bird netting. She grabbed the netting and shook it like a prisoner cursing the bars of their jail cell.
The primary diseases that will impact your strawberry crop are fungal infections on the fruit. These issues most often occur when the fruit is in contact with the soil or sitting in standing water. The best way to avoid fungal diseases is to mulch your strawberries well and pick them a little early if the weather is particularly wet.
Harvest and Storage Unlike some fruits, strawberries should be left to fully ripen on the plant for optimal flavor and quality. If harvested early, they will continue to ripen off the plant, but the flavor will not be nearly as intense. Ripe strawberries have a very short shelf-life so they should be eaten within a couple days or preserved for long-term storage. Our favorite method of preserving strawberries is to slice them into quarter-inch-thick slabs and dehydrate them. We also freeze gallon bags of fruit to throw in smoothies throughout the year.
Now that you’re equipped with the knowledge of how to grow strawberries in your garden, you can experience a flavor only achieved by first getting your hands dirty then getting your hands sticky. Once you taste a ripe heirloom strawberry, I’m confident that you’ll fall in love with growing this wonderful native plant.