For Shortcake During The Summer, Plant Strawberries Now

Q:When should strawberries be planted?

A. In the milder, maritime areas of the Northwest, strawberry plants can be set out any time during the dormant season, say from November to March. You can find bare root plants in nurseries and garden centers during winter and early spring.

They also are frequently available in 4-inch or larger pots during late spring and summer, and can be put into the garden during those seasons.

There are basically two kinds of strawberries, the June-bearing cultivars and the so-called day-neutral types.

The June bearers produce their entire crop during a few short weeks in June.

The day-neutrals (sometimes called everbearers), will provide fresh berries from June to frost. If you wish to freeze or otherwise put up large quantities of berries at one time, choose the June-bearers. But if fresh strawberries through the entire season are your desire, go with the day-neutrals.

Strawberries must have full sun and well-drained soil for optimum production. Shade will reduce the quantity and quality of berries, and poor drainage is likely to lead to root rot and death.

Before planting, improve the soil as you would for a vegetable garden; add organic matter and incorporate 3 to 5 pounds of 5-10-10 garden fertilizer for every 100 feet of row. Use the higher figure for sandy soils.

There are a number of methods to cultivate strawberries, but the matted row system, where the daughter plants from the original mothers are allowed to fill in a 12- to 18-inch-wide row fairly solidly, seems to be most appropriate for home gardeners. Plant 6 to 12 inches apart (research done at Cornell University with everbearers calls for staggered plantings within the row).

Some researchers recommend that all runners be removed from the plants the first year they are set out to maximize the care given to the mother plants. For most of us, this extra effort may not be necessary, and it's just as well to let them begin to fill in the row the first season. Try to arrange them so each new daughter plant will eventually be 5 to 8 inches from its neighbor as the row or bed fills in.

After your everbearers or day-neutrals have been established for a month, you will need to fertilize monthly throughout the growing season. Because day-neutrals constantly bear flowers and fruit, and also produce daughter plants, they need plenty of mineral nutrients. Apply 1 pound of 5-10-10 fertilizer for each 25 feet of bed area each month. Plants will lose vigor, became pale-green and flower and fruit poorly if enough fertilizer is not given. For the same reasons, your strawberries will need plenty of water through the season.

June-bearing strawberries normally get along with much less in the way of nutrients. Fertilizers are applied after harvest, usually in August, with plenty of water to maximize fall growth and flower-bud formation for the following spring.

When planting new strawberry plants, make sure the crown of each plant is even with the soil surface. If you plant them too deep, they'll likely become stunted. And if they're too high, they also will not perform well. No roots should be visible after planting. Before planting, soak the roots in water for an hour or so and trim them to 4 inches. Also, spread the roots out; don't cramp them.

Many gardeners remove all foliage from June-bearers after harvest to stimulate new leaves and invigorate the plants. Don't do this with the day-neutrals, or everbearers. Because of their constant production they must have considerable foliage at all times; however, if you plant your new everbearers in spring, it is best to remove all flowers for the first six weeks so all their energy is directed at re-establishment and producing new daughter plants. After June allow them to flower and mature their fruit.

There are many strawberries available throughout the United States, but if you're going to plant June-bearers, select only those developed for Northwest conditions. Some recommended ones are: Puget Beauty, Hood, Shuksan, Rainier and Totem.

Good day-neutral or everbearing types are Tristar, Tribute, Hecker, Quinault and Fern.

It's probably best to renew strawberry plantings every three to five years since virus diseases usually build up over time. This eventually causes the planting to lose vigor and production to go downhill. For the same reason, it's always prudent to buy certified, disease-free plants in a reputable nursery or garden center. Avoid accepting excess plants from your neighbor, especially if they are from a planting more than one or two years old.

Gardening runs Friday in Scene and Sunday in Home/Real Estate. It is prepared by George Pinyuh and Holly Kennell, Washington State University/King County Cooperative Extension agents, Mary Robson, Master Gardener program assistant, and volunteer Master Gardeners.

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