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Gardening: Care with strawberries can really pay off

When the first strawberries get ripe it is a treasure hunt to find the sweet bites of pure spring hidden under the leaves. It is a taste the grocery store racks can’t hold a candle to, no matter how pretty they are.

Strawberries are one of the most versatile fruits to grow in a home garden. They can be grown in pots on a deck, as an ornamental in a flower bed, in hanging baskets and raised beds as well in a traditional row in the vegetable garden. To do their best they need a sunny location and a deep, well-drained sandy loam soil. Heavy clay soils that do not drain well encourage the development of root rot in the plants. If you have heavy soils, consider growing strawberries on a raised mound or in raised beds in the garden.

Use a good quality potting mix in containers and make sure the containers drain easily. Weed garden beds carefully prior to planting as it is tedious to pull weeds from between strawberry runners later. Add some well-aged compost and dig it in deeply before shaping the planting mound.

Set out plants so the soil is about half way between the roots and the crown of the plant. After planting the bed can be mulched with shredded pine needles to help with weed control and create a dry place for berries to sit as they ripen. Runners can be gently poked through the mulch so they can anchor in the soil. Water regularly and fertilize with a quality 10-10-10 fertilizer in the early spring.

There are two types of strawberry plants; June bearing that bear their crop in June and everbearing that begin bearing in June and produce into the late summer and early fall. June bearers produce the heaviest crop and are the choice for jam making and freezing. Everbearing varieties will bear lighter crops and are perfect for fresh eating. Read the description on the nursery tag carefully so you get the one you want.

Do a little research and make a list of the varieties that appeal to you. Nurseries will usually carry a limited number of varieties so be willing to take alternatives. The plants are usually sold in bare root bundles of 25 plants in the early spring. Plant immediately or heal the bundle into a garden spot for a few days if needed.

Strawberries are susceptible to several diseases including verticillium wilt and for that reason plantings need to be redone every few years. Verticillium wilt lives in the soil so there is little that can be done to avoid it. Resist taking your neighbor’s extra plants and buy new, certified disease free plants. Pests such as spittle bugs, spider mites and slugs also enjoy strawberry plants and fruit. Plantings may need to be covered with bird netting to keep out birds. Be sure to anchor the edges of the net well as a determined bird will find a way in and invite his friends.

Pat Munts is a Master Gardener who has gardened the same acre in Spokane Valley for 30 years. She can be reached by email at pat@inlandnwgardening. com.