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Growing strawberries well worth the wait

I know that progress is good and that West Fargo is a growing town, but oh how I miss Mark's Strawberry Farm. We can buy large, beautiful strawberries in the grocery stores that are shipped in from California. However, these berries are bred to withstand shipping, handling and long keeping. They are not as sweet and rich as fresh picked berries from the field or garden. Although I have no place to grow strawberries, other than in a strawberry pot, many of you have garden space for them.

Like raspberries, there are two types of strawberries, June bearing and everbearing. June bearers produce a single crop in a year and are favored by commercial growers, because it takes fewer trips to harvest them. In North Dakota, everbearers produce their first crop in midsummer after a spring planting and then twice a season thereafter. Home gardeners like these because of the extended harvest. Both types yield about the same amount of fruit. The NDSU Extension Service recommends Oglallala, Ft. Laramie, Gem, and Northland for everbearing varieties. Dunlap, Glooscap, Honeoye, Redcoat, Spotlight and Trumpeter are the recommended June bearing varieties.

Strawberries grow in small beds or planting areas that should be well prepared before planting. You can remove grass and weeds with a total vegetative killer or cover the area with black plastic the season before planting. Other options include spreading an area with several layers of newspaper covered with wood chips and planting right through the mulch and turf. Or you can put 6 to 8 inches of soil over the newspapers, which will kill any vegetation underneath. Two inches of organic matter tilled into the top 12 inches of garden soil is of great benefit. Manures are good fertilizers for strawberries, at 1/2 bushel per square yard.

It is best to plant strawberries in early spring so they can become well rooted before hot weather. It is possible to plant them until August 15, if there is enough soil moisture to get them established before winter.

The strawberry plant is a low-growing herbaceous perennial with a crown and a few primary roots at its base. They need to be planted carefully into a deep slit-like hole. If they are planted too deeply, the crown will likely smother and rot. If they are set too high, the crown will dry out and the plant will die. One-half of the crown should be buried below ground and one-half above ground. Make the hole with a flat-bladed spade inserted 8 inches deep. Slip the plants in and fan out the roots slightly.

Purchase vigorous, healthy plants from a reputable dealer. Young plants will have light (straw) colored roots. Most roots live for only a year and die after fruiting. They must form new roots to survive year to year, and these form higher on the crown. As the roots become more exposed, they are more susceptible to drought and cold. You must build up the soil around old plants or replace them with younger plants. It is best to replace strawberry beds every 2 to 3 years as the soil becomes exhausted.

The matted row system of planting is most commonly used by home gardeners because of its low maintenance. The rows are spaced 3-4 feet apart and the plants are set 18 to 30 inches apart. Allow the runners that the plant produces to fill in, creating rows 12 to 15 inches wide.

The hill system is more work but produces large, exceptional berries and maximizes small spaces. Space double rows 2 to 3 feet apart with the plants 12-15 inches apart in the rows. Remove all runners as soon as they appear.

Remove the blossoms from spring planted everbearing varieties until July 15. Do not allow June bearing varieties to produce fruit the first year. Newly set plants need to put all their energy into roots and leaves in order to produce good crops later.

It does not rain enough in North Dakota to sustain a strawberry bed. Supplemental water at one inch per week is necessary even after harvest. Once the ground freezes in the fall, cover the bed with a 4 inch layer of straw. Do not depend on snow cover. After the plants begin to grow in the spring, move part of the mulch between the rows to hold in moisture and cut down on weeds.

It seems like a lot of work, but once you taste a dish of your own strawberries with cream it will seem worth the effort. For more information, stop by the Cass County Extension office to pick up their bulletins.