What to do this week
By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening” on 970WFLA
Strawberries – How to grow and care for them in the garden
Many of us have started our fall vegetable gardens or at least are in the process of growing our seedlings to plant in the garden this October. Some of my plants are just about ready as I got a little jump on planting this year. I have three varieties of tomatoes, some eggplants, watermelons, carrots, and onions. Those of you that planted sweet potatoes during the summer should be checking on them to see if they are mature or not. Lightly dig out a few just to check their size, and if they are ready, then you can go ahead and harvest them. In this article, I would like to go over another plant you should be preparing for to add to your garden, strawberries. Strawberries are a great addition to any fall garden, and you can grow them in rows or in containers. Let’s get started!
Normally, I would tell you how to prepare your garden first and then how to select good starter plants, but time is of the essence. First, you should decide whether or not you plan on growing them, and if you do, then you will need to locate or order your strawberries now. Some garden centers will offer bare-root plants, but these can be tricky to grow. I like to grow strawberries from plugs, which are small rooted plants. Be advised, these are only available for a limited time. Soon, garden centers will only sell larger plants, which may cost you ten times more. Note: Shell’s Feed and Garden Supply on Nebraska Ave. in Tampa is taking orders now for plugs. Prices are ninety-nine cents per plug, or you can get an entire flat of fifty “Sweet Charlie” plugs for thirty six dollars. Call 813-932-9775 to order now! Do not worry if the varieties your garden center has are not the same as mentioned above, there are many different varieties available and all of them have their own good and bad characteristics. If posible, try several varieties in your garden to determine which cultivar you prefer the best.
To prepare your garden for planting strawberries you will need to create a continuous mound the length of the row in your garden. Strawberries grow best when planted on mounds, which allow the fruit to fall alongside the plants for easy picking. Use three parts peat to one part perlite and if you have any compost, then I suggest adding it to the mix. Sprinkle in some 8-10-10 fertilizer and mix thoroughly with a shovel. Use this soil mixture to prepare your mounds for planting. I make my mounds about a foot across and six inches high on the sides and about eight inches high in the middle. Please, do not spend all day measuring your mounds making them exactly this height but rather gently pull the soil with your shovel along the length of the row to create the mound. Do this for both sides of the mound and for each row you plant.
The next thing you will need to do is gently use the back of the shovel to flatten out the top of the mound giving you an area to plant your strawberry plugs. Make sure you do not compact the soil as strawberries like loose soil to grow in. Generally speaking, two five-foot rows will be more than adequate to give you all the strawberries you can eat. Some people will cover their mounds with black plastic before planting their strawberries. This helps to keep moisture in the soil and around the roots of the new plants and lessens the incidence of weeds, pests and diseases. If you do not want to apply the black plastic to the mounds, then I understand. I am just giving you all of your options.
Now you can start planting your strawberries on the top of the mounds. Carefully separate the plug from the tray making sure you do not damage the roots. If you used plastic to cover your mounds, then make a small incision in the shape of an X with a sharp knife on either side of the mound. Now slip your plug through the plastic and into the soil below. Do not push the plug too far into the soil. You should be able to see the crown of the roots. You can use a little additional soil if necessary to even out the planting hole. I like to plant one plug on each side of the mound giving me two plants for every foot of mound space. A five-foot long mound will need to have ten plants. Spacing between plants should be about six to eight inches on either side of the mound. If you are planting more than one row then, please make sure there is enough space between the plants in each row to allow them to fill out. Again, please be sure not to cover the crown or the base of the plant with soil, or you will not get proper fruit set. Do not mulch your plants. Water your new plugs lightly with a mist after planting.
If your garden has already been planted with other crops, then you should still be able to “sneak” in a few strawberry plants between some of the plants you already have been growing. I always have a little space between some of the larger plants I grow or if a plant has died, then I remove the dead plant and build a small mound of dirt with a little potting soil to plant my strawberry plants on. Try not to add too much soil over the roots of your existing plants. Adding too much soil over your existing plants roots can cut off oxygen to the roots.
If you do not have any room in the garden, then you can still enjoy a few strawberries by planting in containers. Search garden centers for containers designed for strawberries. There are many different varieties, but my favorites are the clay pots that are about fifteen inches tall with small planting holes scattered around the sides of the pot. Fill the containers with the soil mixture I mentioned above. You may have to add soil in the planting holes around the edge of the container. Most clay strawberry containers will have six or eight planting holes so you will need the same number of new plugs. Scoop out a little soil in each of the planting cells and lightly push your new plug into each of the cells. Only one plant per cell is necessary. You may need to add some soil around the plants to steady them. Do not cover the crown of the roots.
Just like the mounds we created above, strawberry pots are designed to allow the new berries to fall alongside the pot to allow easy picking and monitoring of the fruit. You can also move the container easily if weather conditions warrant. Remember, strawberries can freeze if we get cold weather so you can move your plants into a sheltered place when growing in containers. Please do not forget to water your plants regularly as containers tend to dry out quickly.
Now that your plants are in the ground or in your containers, you will need to monitor them for diseases such as leaf spot or fruit rot. Products such as Daconil or Green Cure Fungicide should be applied preventively to halt the spread of these diseases. I spray my developing plants every fifteen days or so with a mixture of one of the above products and a liquid fertilizer such as Miracle Grow or Peters fertilizer. Make sure you use the liquid fertilizer at one-half strength each time you use it and spray the entire plant to the point of runoff. Strawberries are heavy feeders, so make sure you reapply a light application of an 8-10-10 granular fertilizer every twenty days or so in addition to the liquid fertilizer you are using.
Strawberries are great plants for the fall garden, and you definitely need to try at least a few plants in your garden. Beds are easy to prepare or containers can be used if you want to save some time. Continue to monitor your plants for insect problems and diseases. Do not forget to fertilize often. Water your plants regularly and do not let them wilt. Pretty soon you will be enjoying some delicious strawberries from your own garden. Good Luck and remember, without plants, we would not be here!