Strawberry Planting and Cultivation on the Small Farm

The following information on strawberry planting and cultivation on the small farm comes from Five Acres and Independence by M. G. Kains. Five Acres and Independence is also available to purchase in print.

No fruit is easier to grow, quicker to yield a crop, surer of a demand, or more likely to be profitable than the strawberry.* Whether you have only a backyard or whether your farm is measured by the square mile your strawberry “patch” should be at least large enough to supply all the fruit your family needs; and if your funds are so limited that you must make every cent work, the strawberry should be your first choice as a money fruit crop, because even at the height of the picking season the supply is seldom equal to the demand and because prices, no matter how low, are usually surer to be in excess of cost than are those of any other fruit. To make strawberries pay, however, it is essential that the plants be well grown, yield sufficiently and the fruit be properly handled. [*This chapter has been edited by Mr. W. Lee Allen of Salisbury, Maryland, General Manager of The W. F. Allen Company, which for nearly fifty years has specialized in the testing of strawberry varieties and the production of plants.]

Naturally you will want to know what to expect from a specific area. According to the United States Department of Agriculture the average American yield is about 1,800 quarts to the acre; but there’s no sense in having such small crops. Commercial growers, on a field scale, get 5,000 to 10,000 quarts to the acre and specialists growing in small areas, have attained yields that would make the acre rate 20,000 quarts! Of course, such high yields are attained only by intensive methods and exceptional attention to details. I mention them merely to indicate the possibilities and to show the importance of good care.

As costs and prices differ widely it is safer to calculate on the total time required to grow a crop, for then local costs and prices may be used to estimate local costs. The 5-year averages of six Kentucky strawberry farms were somewhat more than 2,400 quarts, 100 horse-hours and 300 man-hours an acre. It may be said that though many instances of profits of $1,000 or even more an acre have been realized and though $500 may be easily attained by experienced growers in favorable years, you must remember that frosts, drouths and other adverse factors may cause complete failure any year—perhaps for two or more years in succession—so if you can average $200 an acre year in year out you should be pleased because you will be earning several times as much as growers of most other crops. Higher averages may be expected from areas of 1/4 to 2 or 3 acres than from larger ones.

One of the chief factors in securing high yields and therefore profits is the variety. During the present century improvement has been so startling that of more than 400 varieties I tested up to the year 1900, only four are included among the 46 catalogued by a nursery which for nearly 50 years has specialized in the production of strawberry plants, and which it grows by the million. The policy of this nursery has long been to discard all varieties that it has proved to be inferior to the ones it catalogues and to point out the failings or weak points as well as the merits of each one it lists.

Some varieties called pistillate or imperfect will not set fruit when planted alone. The reason is that their stamens are either aborted or missing altogether so cannot produce the pollen upon which fruit formation depends. To make them fruitful, perfect kinds must be planted near by—not less than one row of perfect to five of imperfect. In my opinion there are so many excellent kinds to choose among and alternating the rows so often causes trouble at harvest time that I would confine my choice to perfect kinds. Catalogues indicate perfect ones by “P” or “Per” and the imperfect as “Imp” or “Pis.”

The best variety I have grown is Premier. Concerning it this nursery says in part: “It has given more general satisfaction and has been a better money maker over a wide territory than any other variety ever introduced. For home garden, local market, or for shipping moderate distances it has outclassed them all.”

Since 1915 when Premier was introduced at least a score of really excellent varieties have been selected from perhaps a thousand offered. Of these two of the most notable are Fairfax and Dorsett which originated with the Department of Agriculture. As yet I have not had opportunity to fruit them but such is my confidence in the judgment of the nursery referred to that I quote: “Where they have been tried, Dorsett and Fairfax outclass Premier as berries for the home garden, local market and for shipping, just as completely as Premier outclassed the others when it was first introduced. We believe they will maintain this superiority over most of the territory where Premier has been so good.”

I would not quote the above statements if I could not indorse them. Nevertheless, I strongly advise everybody who grows these varieties for home use or sale to grow other kinds for comparison because differences of constitution, of soil or other factors may or may not be favorable and because the aim should always be to have the best that will do well under local conditions. For these two outlets you should also include at least one of the everbearing varieties to supply dessert fruit in late summer and autumn.

Among varieties that have done well for me are Big Joe (alias Joe Johnson, New Hope and Joe), Glen Mary, Marshall, Aroma, Chesapeake (Late berry), William Belt, Gandy, and Orem (Frost-king). These cover a season from earliest to latest—3 to 5 weeks in early summer. Others highly and widely recommended are Blakemore, Bellmar, and Southland (for the South)—all developed by the Department of Agriculture.

Everbearing varieties have two bearing seasons each year, one in spring, the other in late summer and fall. The crop is usually too light to be of commercial value, but the second crop makes a welcome addition to the home bill of fare and often finds ready sale to personal customers and at roadside stands; but unless you have one or the other of these outlets it would be wise to feel your way before planting them extensively.

Of all the everbearing varieties I have grown Champion (Progressive) is of best quality but the berries are smaller and much less abundant than those of Mastodon, concerning which the nursery already quoted says it “is good enough in all respects to stand out among everbearers just as Premier has done among spring bearing kinds.”

Last year, under exceptionally unfavorable conditions (gravelly soil and unavoidable shade much of the day) my plants grown by the hill system averaged about a quart each for the season. Under more favorable conditions I feel sure that this average could be easily exceeded.

When plants must be bought to start a strawberry “bed” it is advisable to get them from a nursery which specializes in strawberry plants rather than to buy from a neighbor or even from a “general” nursery. After a start has been made many northern growers dig plants from their own beds to make new ones; others buy from the nursery. In the South renewal of stock from the northern nurseries at least every two years is necessary because the rest period of the southern winter is not long enough to maintain the vitality of the stock.

In my opinion digging one’s own plants is an undesirable practice because, 1, digging and cleaning the plants demands skillful work, is costly and likely to be done improperly by inexperienced hands; 2, the consumption of valuable time due to unhandy methods of digging and unskilled trimming; 3, probable delay of digging due to unfavorable weather or soil condition; 4, likelihood of getting plants inferior to those bought from a specialist nursery, because diseased or infested with insects; 5, the loss of berries such plants would bear the same year; 6, probable injury to the plants near the ones dug but left in the bed.

On the other hand, the advantages of buying from the specialist nursery are the reverse of those just enumerated and also include the certainties, 1, of getting high grade plants trimmed properly and ready for planting; 2, of having them arrive early—dependent only upon early placement of the order; 3, of having plants with straightened roots, thus favoring speed and correct planting. Such plants would probably give better performance because usually grown on lighter soil than that of the bed to which transplanted. In short, purchased plants will probably cost less and produce larger crops than those dug from one’s own bed. However, no higher price should be paid for so-called “pedigreed” plants because these have been proved to be no more productive than “unpedigreed” ones.

You need not hesitate to give specialist strawberry nurseries your orders. Their packing methods are so scientific that they can ship by express from coast to coast and yet—barring unreasonable delay in transportation—guarantee every plant to be in prime condition on arrival. If the plants are dried out and wilted soak them until roots and leaves are thoroughly revived and plumped up, several hours if necessary.* [*From this point forward many of the statements have been condensed or adapted from Circular 64 of the West Virginia Experiment Station.]

As the strawberry is a perishable fruit it must be picked as soon as ripe and disposed of without delay or rough treatment. Planting should, therefore, be near a market large enough to absorb the crop, provide plenty of cheap picking labor and avoid a long haul over rough roads. Conversely, it should not be on too high priced land since interest may run away with profits.

Statements concerning site (Chapter 7) apply with special force to the strawberry. Make sure of good air and water drainage, a southern exposure for earliness, a northern one for lateness and protection of the blossoms from spring frosts and heaving of the plants by alternate freezing and thawing during winter.

Any medium fertile, well drained soil with high water-holding capacity is suitable; but since the crop demands considerable attention it is better policy to give it the best land available. Poor land is sure to be disappointing. An ideal soil is a sandy loam underlaid with clay because this gives a warm surface easily worked and a subsoil retentive of moisture and fertility. Sandy soils are warm, suited to plant production, and early fruit, but likely to lack fertility and moisture-holding capacity. Addition of organic matter may correct the latter fault. Clay soils are colder therefore better adapted for late crop production. Their worst fault is that they may bake during hot weather. It seems slightly acid soils are preferable to neutral ones. Perennial weeds such as quack-grass should be eradicated before the plants are set, else they will cause trouble if not destroy the patch. Fields devoted to hoed crops are likely to have few weeds and grass and to be economical to cultivate. However, a rank growth of grass and weeds when plowed under while still lush and green and before seed matures is valuable for humus.

Never should strawberries follow a grass sod of several years’ standing because cutworms, wire worms, but especially white grubs (larvae of May beetles), will be present to destroy the roots. A pure clover sod is safe as it is not infested with white grubs. As 1,000 quarts of berries require about 1,600 pounds of water a good crop will take 3 to 5 tons of water from the soil for the fruit alone, and several times as much to grow the plants. Hence preliminary treatment should aim to augment the water-holding capacity of the soil.

When possible, an inter-tilled crop should precede strawberries, preferably for two years at least, to kill weeds, starve out the insects mentioned, put the soil in good physical condition and betray wet places that need drainage. A heavy dressing of 10 to 30 tons of manure the year before strawberry planting is the best method of increasing the humus content of the soil and of adding fertility. It may be applied to the preceding crop or in the fall.

Green manures such as rye and vetch (together) sown after the cultivated crop will also help build up the humus content (Chapter 26) especially when manure is not available. When cover crops are not used, fall plowing 7″ to 8″ deep the year before plant setting is desirable, provided the furrows are left rough until spring, then disked, harrowed and fertilized as early as possible. Most soils will be benefited by a dressing of 250 to 300 pounds of superphosphate and small doses of potash muriate (50 to 100 pounds) to the acre harrowed in at this time.

When lime is necessary for the cover crop it should be applied at least a year before strawberry planting because this crop seems to resent its presence if too prominent. Better be safe and make it three years.

If the ground is not ready when the plants arrive heel them in temporarily in a well drained, shaded spot and in well prepared soil. To do this make a V-shaped trench about 6″ deep, spread out the plants so the roots of each are in close contact with the earth then firm the soil well around them but not over the crowns. Other rows may be made 2″ or 3″ away from and parallel to the first one. Be sure to keep each variety by itself and properly labeled.

Strawberries are best planted in early spring. Conditions are then most favorable and the most nearly perfect stand may be secured. When necessary to plant in the fall the plants should be well mulched to prevent or reduce losses by heaving.

By marking the ground before plant setting the rows may be kept straight and subsequent care favored. A hand-drawn marker is best for a small patch; a horse-, or tractor-drawn one for a large area. Marking in only one direction is necessary for most systems but in two at right angles for the hill plan because the plants may be set in checks so as to permit wheelhoe tillage being given in two directions.

The most important factor in obtaining a good stand is to prevent the plants suffering for lack of moisture from the time they are dug until again established in the soil; the next most important is to set each plant at the correct depth—no shallower and no deeper than the crown (Fig. 45). When these precautions are taken plant losses should be small. Poor stands are likely when plants are set in late May after the rainy season has passed.

strawberry plant setting

Fig. 45. Strawberry plant setting. Left, crown placed too high; plant will dry out. Right, crown too low; plant will rot. Center, correct; crown at ground level.

The essentials of setting are the same whether the work is done by hand or by machine (Chapter 36). Plants should be dropped only a little ahead of the planter when planting is done by hand. The roots should be spread out fan-shaped so each will intimately contact the soil which must be firmed thoroughly around them to prevent air spaces. This is especially necessary in late planting and when the soil is dry. Too deep planting often suffocates and rots the plants; too shallow allows the roots to become dry. Both finally kill the plants. (Fig. 45·)

Planting distances depend upon the system of growing, though soil fertility and, in many cases, plant-making characteristics of the variety are also often considered. Kinds which produce many runners should be set farther apart than those that make few. The former are best adapted to the matted row systems; the latter to the hedgerow and the hill method.

The matted row system is considered best for commercial production, plants being set 18″ to 24″ apart in rows 42″ to 48″ apart. For sparse plant producers the distances may be respectively 15″ and 36″ or even less. The various distances may be increased in highly fertile soils and reduced in poorer ones.

During the first season plants in the matted row systems are allowed to produce many runners in rows 15″ to 20″ wide. Wider rows than the latter are harder to pick. Though most commercial growers do not thin out the plants, best results are ordinarily obtained when plants range from 4 to 6 to the square foot in the filled-in row. The sooner a full stand of plants can be developed the better will be the yield the following year.

Larger berries but smaller yields are usual with hedgerow and hill systems. However, these make picking and cultivation easier, cost of plants less, removal of some or all runners necessary, but prices for “fancy” berries often offset the extra work and smaller yield.

strawberry plant runner development

Fig. 46. Strawberry plant showing well developed runner.

In the single hedgerow system plants are set 15″ to 18″ asunder in rows 24″ to 30″ apart. Each plant is allowed to form two runners which are placed in the row, one on each side of the parent plant. The final result is a single straight row with plants 5″ or 6″ asunder. In the double hedgerow a slightly greater distance is allowed between rows and each plant allowed to make six or eight plants, two of which are placed in the row as before, the others spaced on each side of the parent plant so the final result is three rows 5″ or 6″ apart and about the same distances between plants.

Plants in the hill system are set 12″ to 24″ asunder in rows 30″ to 48″ apart, but preferably in checks 18″ to 24″ apart so as to favor wheelhoe cross cultivation. All runners are cut off as soon as seen so as to increase the size and strength of the original plants. This increased size does not usually make up in yield for the smaller total number of plants in the bed, but the fruits average much larger and thus command fancy prices.

During the first season care of the plants includes tillage, flower removal in all systems and either training or removal of the runners in the hedgerow or hill systems and thinning plants of free growing varieties in matted rows. Cultivation should begin immediately after planting and be repeated at weekly or 10-day intervals until fall. It should always be in the same direction with the matted row and hedgerow systems, but in different ones with the hill system. The object of one direction is to keep the runners in the rows instead of spreading them too widely. Placing plants where wanted and hand hoeing to keep down weeds close to the plants will be necessary. When the first hoeing is being done covered crowns should be uncovered. Later when runners appear these should be anchored with clods or pebbles where wanted. They soon take root. Excess runners may be cut with a sharpened 8″ disc run between the rows at the desired distance from the row centers.

When allowed, plants will produce a few flowers and fruits the first season, but at the cost of vigor and runner production. To have enough plants for the next season all flower stems should be pinched off, except that those on everbearing varieties should be allowed to remain after about July 1 so as to have fruit later in the season.

About a month after the plants are set 125 to 150 pounds of nitrate of soda to the acre should be top dressed to help runner growth during the first season and a second dose in mid-August to increase and strengthen fruit bud formation which begins in early September. A third application of the same amount is sometimes given in the spring of the fruiting season, but may not be needed. If the bed is to be renewed, 250 to 300 pounds of a complete fertilizer high in nitrogen should be applied after the crop has been gathered.

In my opinion the most practical material for mulching is shredded corn stover, when obtainable at low cost. It may be spread with a large scoop shovel as evenly and as deeply as desired. Marsh or salt hay, though harder to apply, may be used for several years if removed at the close of the picking season, thoroughly dried, and stored under cover or out of contact with the soil. Oat, wheat and rye straw are less desirable, harder to spread and to plow under and are almost sure to contain weed seed. The most undesirable materials are hay and litter from the horse stable because these are sure to introduce weeds and grass.

The time to remove mulch varies according to whether late or early berries are wanted. To get late ones the mulch should be left on until the leaves show slight blanching, no longer. The loose material is then raked off the plants and tramped down between the rows; the small stuff left among the plants. New foliage will grow through the thin covering left on the rows. Irrigating strawberries will insure the crop in dry seasons and increase it in others, but the cost of installation is usually warranted only when other crops are to be grown on the same land so as to apportion the expense. In a permanent business it should more than pay for itself over a period of years.

Harvesting lasts from two to five weeks, depending on the season and the succession of varieties. It starts about a month after the blossoms appear. The fruit is usually picked in quart boxes placed in four-, six- or eight-box carriers. It is marketed in 24-, 32- or 48-box crates. Many growers withhold 1/2c a box to be paid to the pickers who stay the entire season. Otherwise some of them might leave when the berries become scarce. Enough pickers should be employed to pick over the field once in two days. Picking should not start until the dew has dried off the plants nor continue later than noon. Berries should not be picked while wet.

A competent supervisor should see that the following precautions are observed: 1. Fruit should be picked only when properly ripe. For home use and roadside market it should be mature and well colored; for near-by retail markets it should be hard ripe and almost fully colored. 2. The patch must be picked clean at each picking. Over-ripe and misshapen berries must be picked off and discarded. 3. Each picker must stick to and finish his assigned row. 4. The fruit should be picked with 1/4″ to 1/2″ of stem, and only a few berries should be held in the hand at a time. 5. Boxes must be well filled. 6. Plants must not be knelt on. 7. The fruit must be kept out of the sun after picking, preferably in a shelter shed near the patch, the berries being taken there to be packed as soon as the carrier is full.

The best method of marketing the crop will depend upon the location. In most localities selling in a local market will be best. This applies especially to roadside marketing. Pan-grading the fruit and arranging the top layer attractively often build up a fancy trade.

Though most commercial growers prefer to plow under the plants after only one crop has been gathered and immediately to plant a late vegetable crop such as cabbage or a cover crop such as crimson clover, many others crop their matted row beds a second time. The best way to do this is to renew the beds once. If insects and diseases have been very bad, renewing even the first time is not advisable. The best time to renew is immediately after the last picking. The usual method consists of the following steps:

Most of the mulch is raked off the field and either made into artificial manure or compost. If infested with insects it should be burned. The foliage is next mowed with the cutter bar of the hay mower set high enough to avoid cutting the crowns. The chief purpose of mowing is to control foliage diseases. When the mowed leaves are dry and when a fairly strong breeze is blowing in a safe direction the dry material is fired in several places on the windward side so as to burn rapidly across the patch. If the plants are too dry, or the mowed leaves too wet, the crowns may be injured. Burning over destroys insects and diseases; where these are not present it need not be done.

After the bed is cleaned and burned the rows must be narrowed. One method is to plow one (say the east or the north) side of each row including the center. The best width of row to leave will depend upon local conditions and season. If the season up to the time of treatment has been dry and seems likely thus to continue few plants will likely form so the row should be left 12″ wide or wider; if more favorable, it may be as narrow as 6″. Character of variety also must be considered: kinds that produce many runners may be more closely narrowed than those that produce few.

A second method, most applicable where the rows are wide and the variety a liberal plant-former is to plow two furrows toward each other between the rows, a second pair down the centers of the rows and then cultivate these furrows down smoothly and finely. Both these methods get rid of the old plants and favor the production of new ones.

A third plan merely narrows the rows by plowing a furrow on each side of the rows and the spaces between (Fig. 47). As it leaves all the old plants it is less desirable than the other two.

strawberry bed renewal

Fig. 47. Strawberry bed renewal. a, Matted rows and mulch before treatment; b, tops cut and burned with part of mulch; c, strip plowed at each side of matted row; d, new foliage on renovated plants; runners will develop later.

Plants in the narrowed row are usually somewhat crowded so some must be removed to give the next year’s fruiting plants a chance to grow large and vigorous. Runners begin to form soon after berry harvest.

Cultivation should begin as soon as the rows are narrowed and continue until fall. A top dressing of 250 pounds each of nitrate of soda and superphosphate an acre is advisable just before the first cultivation.

Strawberry insects and diseases are usually not troublesome where clean tillage, rotation, correct renovation and the planting of healthy stock are followed. Setting plants in soil which has been in sod the previous season, and especially for several years, should always be avoided because the white grubs are almost certain to do serious damage. Where facilities are available, one or two combination sprays of Bordeaux-lead arsenate before blossoming is insurance against leaf spot and chewing insects such as leaf rollers. Root aphis seldom give trouble if clean plants are obtained and set in land not occupied by strawberries for several years. Weevil may be controlled by setting chiefly pistillate varieties since the larvae feed on the pollen.

Many strawberry growers have discovered that a killing frost in blossom time is their one greatest enemy. Some growers keep on hand rolls of heavy brown wrapping paper, 4′ or 5′ wide. When the radio or the papers indicate a killing frost is coming, this paper is unrolled over the rows. Only in very rare cases is there any wind when a frost descends in May. This heavy paper will save the crop, and the paper can be rolled up after use and saved for another year.

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Strawberry Planting and Cultivation on the Small Farm

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