Have a berry merry spring


Fresh Arkansas strawberries are a sure sign spring has arrived. These tasty fruits are the first fruiting crop in Arkansas for commercial growers as well as home gardeners. With the cooler weather in early spring this year, strawberries were a little late to start blooming, but hopefully late freezes missed them. These low-growing perennial plants are easy to grow in a sunny, well-drained location as a stand-alone crop, on the edge of a vegetable garden or as an edible groundcover.

Today, farmers are growing them in high tunnels and in plastic-covered raised beds and treating them as an

Raised beds of strawberries at Moss Mountain Farm.

annual crop. They plant them in the fall, harvest in the spring and then destroy the plants and grow something else for the summer. Chandler is one of the main strawberry varieties grown this way. With this type of production, the fruit comes in earlier than traditional matted row plantings.

Most home gardeners are still growing strawberries the traditional way and treating them as a perennial. There are two basic types: June-bearing (which we harvest in April and May) or everbearing. Many gardeners like the sound of an everbearing strawberry, imagining bushels of fruit all summer long. But, in reality, they are not as prolific a producer as our regular spring-only varieties. Cardinal is an excellent large-fruited variety developed by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. Earliglow, Noreaster, Surecrop and Ozark Beauty are all good varieties for the home garden.

While strawberry plants prefer a fertile sandy loam soil, they are fairly adaptable to most garden soils, provided they are well-drained and the site gets at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day. Since strawberry flowers are susceptible to a late frost, choose a site with a slightly higher elevation. Low areas tend to be frost pockets and can lead to more frost damage. The site you select should be clear of weeds and grass.

If properly maintained, a strawberry patch can be prolific for up to seven years or longer. If you plant strawberries in the spring, it is recommended that you pick off the flowers for the first season to encourage a stronger plant for future production. That can be hard to do, because everyone wants every fruit they see. If you plant in the fall, you can harvest the first spring.

When picking strawberries in the home garden, let the berries fully ripen on the plant. Fully ripe berries have the highest sugar content and the sweetest flavor.

You aren’t the only one who likes fresh strawberries. Birds are often your main competitor, and bird netting or scare devices can help. Squirrels and other animals may be harder to control. Slugs also can be an issue.

Once your plants are established, never fertilize until after harvest. Early applications of fertilizer can lead to excessive vegetative growth, giving you more leaves, which cuts back on air circulation and can lead to more fruit rots. Monitor for fruit rots during the harvest season. Heavy rains can also play a part with rotting fruit.

Once the harvest season is over, you need to renovate your beds each year. Thin out your plants so they are spaced 6 to 8 inches apart. The plants you remove can help expand your strawberry planting. The plants you leave will rapidly produce new runner plants, which will give you more fruit next year. Fertilize after thinning with a complete fertilizer. Mulch the plants to help conserve moisture and keep weeds at bay. Water as needed throughout the summer. Fertilize again in late August to early September. Temperatures can be fairly hot at that time, so make sure the plants are well-watered before you fertilize, and water them lightly after fertilization. Hot and dry conditions can lead to fertilizer burn, so use caution.

Hanging baskets of strawberries and strawberry pots are available at local outlets. These will produce enough fruit to add to your cereal, but they tend to be more of an ornamental edible, something fun to have on the deck.

Janet B. Carson is a freelance writer specializing in gardening.