From home-grown fruit plants come harvests which can best be appreciated by someone who has actually eaten them. One's first taste of a truly fine strawberry will soon point up the tremendous gap which exists between such a fruit and the run-of-the-field stuff sold at the supermarket.
The most important of all garden fruits is the strawberry. It more nearly resembles a vegetable in its culture than does any other fruit. It is not surprising that in many truck-gardening areas growers switch from vegetables to strawberries and back again almost at will. Although the strawberry plant is a perennial and beds can be made to last for more than one year, best commercial practice calls for a new planting each year. The plants are grown in rows and for the first season need the same cultivation as vegetable crops. The next season they produce their best fruit. They can be left for four more years, but true connoisseurs usually plow them under.
In the so-called hill system of growing, the mother plant is kept pruned of all runners. This is the method by which the home gardener can produce the largest and best-flavored berries. The plants are usually set 12 inches by 24 inches apart in the bed and kept free of weeds. Usually, a rather heavy mulch is maintained on the bed. The plants are watched constantly to prevent runners from rooting. While very large berries are produced, production per square foot is probably lower than when other methods are used. As can be imagined, the labor required is considerable. About 100 plants are as many as most home gardeners care to cultivate when the hill system is used.
The variety used is important, since not all strawberries do well when grown in this way. The Alpine variety “Baron Solemacher” grown from seed will produce perhaps the finest-flavored berries of all. These have the aroma which makes wild strawberries such a delectable treat. Where it will grow, the English 'Royal Sovereign' produces superb berries by this system. These are of enormous size, deliciously rich and sweet.
The matted-row system is exactly the opposite of the hill method. The mother plants are set 24 inches apart in rows 36 inches apart. After fruiting, the mother plants are encouraged to produce all the runners possible for twelve inches on either side of the row. Any forming outside these limits are cut off. This produces a matted row about 24 inches wide, with a twelve-inch lane between the rows of plants.
One advantage of the matted row is that it provides plenty of plants for setting new beds. The best way to produce these is to use one of the new peat-and-fiber pots in which to root them. These pots come in three-inch round or three-inch square sizes, just right to produce a husky plant. The pot is filled with a rich composted soil and plunged under a likely-looking runner. By late August the rooted plant can be cut from the parent plant and used to plant a new row. Although fall-planted rows require protection for one additional winter, they are usually more productive than spring-planted rows. They can even be allowed to bear a light crop the first spring.
It is a well-accepted rule, however, that all spring flowers should be removed the first season following planting. This keeps the plant from fruiting. Once the spring bloom is over, the June bearers (which produce only one set of flower buds a year) will not bloom again.
The row system of planting is a compromise between the matted row and the hill system. Here, plants are set 24 inches apart in rows 36 inches apart. One runner is allowed to set in the row on either side of the mother plant. In theory, each runner is about eight inches long, so the finished row is made up of plants spaced eight inches apart. Sometimes a second set of runners is allowed to root at right angles to the row. This leaves the mother plant with four runners surrounding it. This is called the hedge-row system, since the bed resembles a series of triple hedges.
Strawberries can be planted in the fall if pot-grown plants are available. These are easy to plant, since they are set just as deep as they grew in the pot. Plants in clay pots will have to be knocked out (removed from the pot), but if in peat-and-fiber pots, they are planted pot and all. Bare-root plants can also be set in fall, but few nurseries have them available at that time. Plants available in spring are usually sold bare-root. They come tied in bundles. Before untying, cut the roots to a uniform length, about four inches below the soil line.
Cut off any dead or weak leaves, leaving only three or four of the new, healthy, young leaves to form the new top. Now the plant is ready to be set. In the average garden there is not much choice of location. The strawberry does not like heavy soils, and if only a clay loam is available, it should be treated as mentioned under soil. A gardener's loam as mentioned in that entry is the ideal toward which to strive, although strawberries will do well in lighter sandy loams.
One of the most important steps in planting is to set the plant so the dividing line between the roots and the top or crown comes exactly at the surface of the soil. The crown should never be buried nor should roots show above the ground. Firm the soil around the roots so the crown will not be pulled below the surface when the plants are watered. If dirt works into the crown, it may rot.
Regular weeding is important, as strawberry plants make poor competitors for vigorous weeds. Do not cultivate deeply close to the plants and rooted runners, as these are shallow-rooted. In regions where the thermometer can be expected to drop as low as 12 above zero regularly, a mulch is necessary. This is not, as many suppose, to keep the plants from freezing. On the contrary, it is to keep them frozen in early spring and prevent alternate thawing and freezing, which tend to pull the plants out of the ground. Being shallow-rooted, strawberries cannot resist the heaving action of frost.
In the South, a straw mulch is still desirable, largely to keep down weeds. It is of little value, however, if straw full of grain or marsh hay full of weed seeds is used. Clean, grain-free straw is the ideal material, if it can be had. An excellent substitute, much more readily available in most city and suburban areas, is excelsior. Most retail stores will be glad to give the home strawberry grower all he can use.
The mulching material is dumped right over the plants. By the time it settles, there should still be about three inches of it over the leaves in the North. In the South, the tips of the leaves should be showing. In spring, when the daffodils are just showing yellow in their buds, pull away the mulch from the tips of the leaves so they show through. The new leaves will grow right through the mulch, which later will keep the berries clear of the soil.
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