STRAWBERRY SUCCESS

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EXPERTS AROUND THE COUNTRY SHARE THEIR SECRETS FOR GROWING THE SWEETEST. BEST-TASTING BERRIES IN YOUR GARDEN. TO TOXIC SPRAYS NEEDED.

Bite into a fresh-picked, ripe strawberry. It's tender, juicy, and sweet, right? Not like those huge, waxy, and largely flavorless blobs that have been picked before they're fully ripe and then shipped thousands of miles before they get to the grocery store. Even worse, unless they're organic, those supermarket berries have been produced with more toxic chemicals than just about any other food in the produce aisle.

But you don't have to worry about that. You're an organic gardener, and strawberries are easy--fun, even--to grow. You can pack them into tight spaces (they love container culture), and they're quick producers, often giving you ready-to-eat fruit within weeks of planting. Plant a few different varieties, and you'll be picking your own strawberries for weeks in spring and summer.
Type Cast

You can choose from three main types of strawberries:

June-bearing varieties produce just one large crop of fruit per year, generally in June or early July. These are sometimes referred to as short-day strawberries, because the short day-lengths of early fall stimulate them to make flower buds. The berries tend to be the largest of the types; however, they are often the most sensitive to soilborne diseases.

Everbearing plants produce a spring and fall crop with medium-sized fruit. The plants generally don't send out runners--shoots that grow on the surface of the soil and become new plants. After about three years, the fruit production will decline and you'll need to replace everbearers. Among the all-time favorites are 'Quinault,' 'Ft. Laramie', and 'Ogallala'.

Day-neutral varieties bear fruit continuously as long as temperatures are below 90°F. In mild areas of the country, they fruit most of the year, but elsewhere they produce berries from late May until frost. The berries are medium to large size, and the plants are more disease-resistant than the other two types. They don't produce many runners, and they thrive in tight spaces like containers. Day-neutrals are often used for commercial production, especially in organic growing, because fruit production lasts longer, says Curtis Gaines, a strawberry specialist at the University of California, Davis. "The new day-neutral 'Albion', for instance, is excellent for organic growing because it resists many soil diseases. It's also large and has an excellent flavor." Other notable new varieties introduced by the University of California include 'Aromas', 'Monterey', 'Portola', and 'San Andreas'.
Berry Basics

No matter where you garden, strawberries need a few conditions to stay healthy and productive. I'll explain those now and then share experts' recommendations for your specific region.

The right site. As they say in real estate, location is everything. Strawberries need full sun--southern exposure, except in the hottest, driest conditions, is ideal. Also, strawberries are prone to the diseases that afflict tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes. Reduce the risk by planting strawberries where you have not grown those crops in the past three or four years.

Prep the soil. Strawberries require slightly acidic soil. "The pH should fall somewhere between 5.5 and 6.8," says Joe Masabni, extension vegetable specialist at Texas A & M. Drainage also is critical. If your soil tends toward soggy, plant strawberries in raised beds. Amend the soil with compost, which not only provides nutrients but helps disperse moisture in the soil. Better yet, grow a soil-building cover crop such as buckwheat, hairy vetch, oats, or clover before planting strawberries.

Keep it clean. "Weeds compete with shallow-rooted strawberry plants for water and nutrients and often harbor insects and disease," says Gail Nonnecke, a horticulture professor at Iowa State University, who has researched strawberries for more than 25 years. Eradicate all weeds from the site before planting and then make sure to remove all new invaders as soon as they appear.

Mulch matters. A layer of straw or pine needles spread on the soil suppresses weeds and helps retain moisture. Particularly important when the plants are producing fruit, the mulch forms a protective barrier between the soil and the berries, keeping the fruit clean, dry, and safe from diseases, such as fruit rot, which can ruin your harvest.

Water wisely. Strawberries require consistent moisture to produce to their maximum. Just be sure to water the plants directly at the root zone--wet leaves and fruit are most susceptible to fungal diseases.

Feed sparingly. Strawberries do need a steady supply of nutrients but overfeeding especially with high-nitrogen fertilizers, leads to lush foliage and little fruit. At planting time and then monthly during the growing season, give your strawberries a well-balanced organic feeding. "I get great production by fertilizing with a combination of seaweed and fish emulsion throughout the growing season, says gardener Geraldine Cibellis of Villa Park, California, who has grown the day-neutral 'Seascape' for several years.
West Coast

California is the center of the commercial strawberry-growing industry, with roughly 80 percent of strawberries sold in U.S. stores produced here. And no wonder: The berry-growing regions have the fruit's ideal climate, with average temperatures of 55°F at night and 75°F during the day. These tips will help you grow the best berries possible.

Sun protection. While a full-sun location is ideal most of the year, in inland areas provide temporary shade in the hot summer months when temperatures get near the triple digits.

A mite-y challenge. When your strawberry patch is dry and dusty, watch out for mites, tiny but destructive relatives of spiders. "Rinse leaves regularly with water and pick off affected leaves," says Molly Gean of Harry's Berries in Oxnard, California, who grows organic crops of 'Gaviota' and 'Seascape' for local markets and restaurants. If you bye in a mild-winter climate and order fresh plants in the fall and early winter months, ask the nursery to chill them in the refrigerator for approximately three weeks to help the plants fight off spider-mite infestations, Gaines adds. Powdery mildew is also common in this climate. When you see the dry white powder on leaves, Immediately remove infected plant parts and treat the remainder with sulfur.
Pacific Northwest

The cool wet spring weather in this region can make growing strawberries challenging but rewarding, says Bernadine Strik, berry crops researcher at Oregon State University. June-bearing berries that do well in this region include 'Totem', 'Tillamook', 'Puget Reliance', and 'Independence.'

Higher ground. Choose an elevated planting site, avoiding low-lying frost pockets where cold air can be trapped. If you must plant in such a location, protect your plants with row cover when frost is predicted.

Dodging disease. In this climate, botrytis fruit rot can spoil your berries if you leave them on the vine too long. Harvest as soon as the berries are ripe, especially in rainy weather. Verticillium wilt is a soilborne disease that afflicts many crops here, including Strawberries., Planting your strawberries in a spot where you have not grown tomatoes and their kin is a simple way you can help protect your strawberries from the disease.
Midwest

The Midwest's frigid winters and variable summers are not an obstacle to growing strawberries, thanks to well-adapted varieties, such as June-bearers 'Allstar' and 'Earliglow', and day-neutral strawberries 'Tribute' and 'Tristar'. Plant those varieties and bear in mind these tips to enjoy a healthy strawberry harvest.

Straw security. Protect your strawberry plants in fall and winter with 4 inches of straw mulch, applied before temperatures dip below 20°F. When you spread mulch, cover the plant crowns thoroughly. Remove it in spring when plants resume growth.

Weed free. The common diseases in this climate include botrytis fruit rot and anthracnose, the latter of which causes stem and fruit lesions and fruit decay on day-neutral berries. Prevent these problems and minimize disease and insect pressure, Nonnecke advises, by eradicating weeds before you plant. They harbor diseases and insects that ruin the fruit.
Southwest

Searing hot, dry weather and alkaline soil test the mettle of strawberry varieties and the gardeners who plant them. 'Chandler', 'Sequoia', and 'Allstar' have proved themselves well adapted and reliable in the Southwest. Where the soil is highly alkaline, try another crop, Masabni urges.

Sweet or sour soil. Before planting, check the soil's pH with a lab test or a simple at-home kit. "If your soil is highly alkaline--in the 9 to 10 range--then plant strawberries in a raised bed or container, because no amount of amending is going to lower the pH enough," says Masabni.
South

In this region's hot, humid climate, you want varieties that resist fungal disease, says John Strang, horticulture professor at the University of Kentucky. "June-bearers that grow well in this climate include 'Earliglow,' 'Red Chief,' and 'Allstar'," Strang says. "We've also had great luck with day-neutrals such as 'Seascape'." With any variety, these tips will help keep them healthy and productive.

Stop slugs. The slimy pests snack on strawberries. They are abundant when conditions are wet, says Strang, whose preferred control method is beer traps.

Warm blankets. On frosty spring nights, blanket plants with a row cover or other protection to safeguard flowers.
Northeast

"In this region, 'Jewel' is the standard to which other June-bearers are compared, but some of the newer day-neutral strawberries like 'Albion' also do quite well," says Marvin Pritts, Cornell University professor and small-fruit specialist.

Winter safe. Timely mulch application is critical, says Pritts, who recommends protecting plants with straw in late fail before the ground freezes solid, then uncovering them after the risk of extremely cold weather (below 20°F) is past in spring. Winter-hardiness is a major factor in choosing the right variety to grow, and surprisingly, it's not snow that threatens strawberry plants. "We hope for a good snow cover that lasts until spring, because it helps protect the plants," says David Handley, small-fruit specialist at the University of Maine. Ensure that your plants don't get damaged by cold weather, and, even as far north as Maine, you can enjoy successful harvests of June-bearers such as 'Earliglow', 'Red Chief', 'Allstar', and 'Sparkle'.

Sloped site. Keep away from areas that remain wet late into the spring. Plant on a site with a gradual slope, which helps prevent frost injury by draining cold air away from the plants.

Disease defense. Avoid infestations of red stele and verticillium wilt by planting resistant varieties. Keep the strawberry beds weed-free to discourage insect pests such as tarnished plant bugs and strawberry bud weevils. Also, allow for steady air circulation and mulch between rows to prevent attacks of gray mold.

Master Gardener Julie Bawden-Davis is author of four gardening books, Including The Strawberry Story: How to Grow Great Berries In Southern California. She gardens in Orange, California,

Visit OrganicGardening.com to see recommended varieties for your region's growing conditions and find links to organic mail-order sources.
In a Pot

With their pert white blossoms and attractive green foliage, strawberries Look great in containers and give you a steady supply of fresh fruit. Growing strawberries in pots makes soil prep and pest and disease control easy on you.

1. Choose day-neutral varieties, which flower and fruit all season long.
2. Plant in a container with drainage holes. Don't put gravel, broken pottery, or anything else that will take up root space in the bottom of the pot.
3. For planting mix, use a blend of one part compost to two parts organic potting soil,
4. Space plants about 2 to 4 inches apart.
5. After planting, water well with a weak solution of compost tea. Keep the soil in the container consistently moist, but never soggy.

Stale Bed = Eresh Berries

Weeds harbor pests and diseases, and compete with strawberry plants for water and nutrients. Time spent eliminating weeds before planting strawberries Is well worth it, says Bill Nunes, OG test gardener in Gustine, California, and an experienced strawberry grower. He's found the "stale-seedbed" technique to be the most effective strategy. Till or cultivate the soil early in the season and allow weeds to germinate. When they are a couple of inches high, cut them down with a stirrup hoe while disturbing the soil as little as possible, or kill them will an organic herbicide or flame weeder. Repeat this process until few, if any, weed seeds germinate. Now you are ready to plant your strawberries.
MASTER'S TIP

Continually renew your strawberry patch by propagating the runners. Encourage the "daughter" plants to take hold near the "mother" plant, and once the new plants root, cut them from the original, Or root the new plants in small containers and transplant them elsewhere.
NEWBIE HINT

When planting strawberries, center the crown (the center of the plant from where the roots extend) above- and belowground, which usually means ¼ to ½ inch in the ground and ¼ to ½ inch aboveground. If the crown is too high. the roots dry out; if it's too low, the plant will rot.

PHOTO (COLOR): From flower to fruit: A layer of straw mulch (far left) forms a protective barrier for the fruit. Strawberry plants send out runners (near left) that grow into new plants, which will blossom (below left) and bear fruit the next season. A strawberry huller (below) is a handy tool when the harvest comes in.

PHOTO (COLOR): Pick your own: Check your strawberries often and harvest them as soon as they ripen to keep the patch pest-free.

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By Julie Bawden Davis

Photographs by Rebecca Thompson

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