Strawberries Are Happy Plants

By Justin Spring
This year’s variety is M.5 Justin Spring

There are certain plants that any gardener interested in eating well will want to have, and among them, strawberries top my list. Unlike most vegetables, which can take all summer to grow and need to be replanted each year, strawberries ripen from late spring through midsummer. Once established, they need minimal care. And they are particularly good plants for the casual or weekend gardener, since a well-planted strawberry bed will produce generously for years without much fuss. Strawberries are easy, happy plants, well adapted to our climate, thriving in full sun and free-draining soil — and we have plenty of both out here on the East End.

Fresh home-grown strawberries have a fragrance and delicacy far superior to any in supermarkets, because all strawberries need to be picked ripe; unripened berries will travel and keep well, but they lack the sweetness, juiciness, and fragrance of a sweet, ripened berry. When you grow your own strawberries, you can be sure of picking them at just this right moment. What is more important, you can be sure they carry no toxins: Starting this year, according to the Department of Agriculture, commercially farmed strawberries top the list of all fruits and vegetables for highest concentration of pesticide residues.

Strawberry plants for the home garden can be ordered in fall or early spring and are shipped bare-root, in bundles. They are inexpensive: 100 plants cost about $30 from Nourse Farms in Whately, Mass. (noursefarms.com). For the complete beginner, however (or for people who simply want to experiment with growing a strawberry or two), potted strawberry plants are readily available at garden centers such as Lynch’s in Southampton for approximately $5. 

 If you read up on strawberry cultivation you might get a little intimidated by their requirements. But that would be a pity, because given half a chance, any strawberry plant will grow, flower, and fruit with few problems. You can plant up an entire bed in the fall, or else in early spring, but they also grow well in small spaces (or even pots) and look beautiful, as well, at the front of a mixed border. 

Strawberry cultivars come in two types: June bearing or everbearing/day-neutral. If you would like to have all your berries at once, want the largest berries possible, and want the most productive possible beds, then June bearing varieties are right for you. Everbearing, by comparison, tend to be smaller strawberries, but they will fruit all summer and into the fall. The tradeoff here is that the plants are a bit less productive, and will need to be replanted every three years.

For as long as I have grown strawberries, I have grown everbearing varieties, because I prefer to have them all season, and I don’t need that many of them. (June bearing varieties can make good sense for those home gardeners who enjoy making strawberry jam, but I don’t — or when I do, I don’t mind buying extra from a farm stand.) Three everbearing varieties that have worked well for me over the years are Seascape (the most productive), Tribute, and Tri-Star. This year, however, I am growing a new variety, Mara des Bois. These strawberries have the intensely fragrant flavor of fraises des bois (wild strawberries) but are as large as a regular strawberry. You can’t buy them in stores. I discovered them last May in Provence and was delighted to find them on sale, bare-root, at Nourse and Burpee. 

Preparing a good, productive strawberry bed takes a little bit of work. Site your bed in full sun and prepare your soil carefully. Several weeks before planting remove all grasses and weeds and till the bed to a depth of about a foot, incorporating some well-aged compost or manure. (You can rent a small, gas-powered cultivator for this purpose from One Source Tool Supply in Southampton for approximately $20 for half a day.) Space plants 12 to 18 inches apart, digging holes deep enough so that the roots go straight down into the ground. 

After planting and watering in, mulch the plants (traditionally using straw; hence the name strawberry). Doing so will discourage weeds, keep the plants’ roots cool, and allow ripening berries to stay dry and away from the soil. For the first month of growth, remove all flowers, fruits, and runners, thereby allowing the plants to mature. Water regularly to keep them happy. After six weeks you can also apply fertilizer. You can net the plants against birds, if you like — or else simply have fewer berries (and more happy robins and catbirds in your garden). At the end of the season, as winter comes on, cover the bed with more straw to protect these shallow-rooted plants from the winter cold.

My approach to strawberries in the kitchen is to do very little with them, since the ripe, sun-warmed berries are essentially perfect. Wash, slice, and eat them soon after picking. Tate’s Bake Shop in Southampton makes a shortbread that accompanies these berries beautifully. 

Click for recipe

For more information see: time.com/ 4289871/dirty-dozen-pesticides-fruit-vegetable/

One of the best guides to home fruit cultivation in our region comes from Cornell University.


 

Justin Spring is a writer whose most recent book, “Secret Historian,” was a finalist for the National Book Award. He divides his time between Bridgehampton and New York.