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What to do this week –By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening”
My fall vegetable garden is coming along very nicely right now and most of my plants are starting to produce. This is a great time of year because you can spend more time in the garden without breaking a sweat and when you feel comfortable working in the garden, you can do more to keep your plants healthy. Fertilizing, checking the plants for insects, and watching for diseases should all be part of your regular activities. This week I would like to help you get a little more out of your garden by explaining how to grow and care for Strawberries. Strawberries are a great addition to any fall garden and you can grow absolutely lovely strawberries not only in your garden but also in pots made especially for them. Let’s get started!
In order to grow a good crop of strawberries you will need to select a nice sunny place in the yard that hopefully you have already prepared for your garden. If your garden is full of plants and you just do not have another inch to spare then read further below on how to grow containerized strawberries. However, if you have some space between plants already growing in the garden or you never filled the garden completely this year, then here is your opportunity to fill up that vegetable garden with some delicious strawberry plants.
I like to “sneak” in a few strawberry plants in-between some of the plants I already have growing especially if a few of my vegetables have already have peaked or are dying. Just remove the old plants that are spent and make a small mound of dirt where your old plants were and add some of your existing soil and a little additional potting soil. Because strawberries like to grow on mounds you will need to use additional soil to build up a small area in-between your existing plants about six inches high and about a foot across. I try to make the center of the mound where my strawberry starts are going to be planted to be just a little higher in the middle of the mound than the edges are. This will allow the new berries as they develop to fall down the edges of the mounds as they grow, away from the base of the plant. 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 the oxygen to these plants so make sure you stay at least ten inches or so away from them.
For those of you that still have open space or empty rows in your garden, you will need to create a continuous mound the length of the row in your garden. I like to use plenty of compost combined with potting soil and a good quality 8-10-10 fertilizer all mixed together when I prepare my mounds for strawberries. I make my mounds about a foot across and six inches high on the sides and about eight inches high in the middle. You do not have to 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 are planning to 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 to much 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 around the roots of the new plants and lessens the incidence of pests and diseases. If you do not follow this step it is ok but I like to give you all the options on growing a successful crop.
Now that your rows are ready for planting, you will need to purchase some starter plants from your local garden center. Some of the varieties you should look for to plant in your garden are the Festival, Carnival, Sweet Charlie, and Camarosa. These varieties are tried and true to grow well here in Central Florida. One of the benefits to the Festival variety is that it produces long pedicles where the fruit is attached to the plant. This allows for easy picking and you are able to better monitor the growth of your berries without them being covered by foliage. Do not worry if the varieties your garden center has available are not one of the varieties I have listed above. There are many different varieties available and all of them have their own good and bad characteristics. If possible try several varieties in your garden to determine which cultivar you prefer the best. Now it is time to plant your strawberries.
Plant your strawberries on the top of the mounds you have created. I like to plant one plant 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. When you remove the new plant from the pot the plant was purchased in be sure to not injure the root system. Dig a small hole no deeper then the crown or top of the root system and gently pull the roots apart and spread them out in the planting hole. Fill in around the roots with additional soil and set the plants at the original planting depth that they were in the pot. Make sure that you leave the crown or the base of the plant out of the soil to allow proper growth and fruiting. I never mulch my plants as this adds to the planting depth of the strawberries and can cause problems. Water the plants in well to eliminate any air pockets.
Those of you planting in containers should look 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 additional soil in the planting holes around the edge of the container. Most container this size will have six or eight planting holes so you will need the same number of new plants. Scoop out a little soil in each of the planting cells and place your new plants in each of the cells as I have mentioned above. You will need to add some additional soil around the plants to steady them. Make sure you do not cover the crown of the roots with soil or your plants will be too deep and this can cause them not to produce.
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 and the individual cells may dry out quickly when temperatures rise.
Now that your plants are planted 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 will 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 the 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 you 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!