Nothing quite says “summer" like biting into a juicy, sweet strawberry fresh from your own garden. This is one of those fruits that anyone can grow, whether you have a huge yard with space for a dedicated strawberry patch or no yard but a sunny porch or balcony (where you can grow a good number of berries in a strawberry pot). And there's good reason to grow your own: strawberries are one of the ubiquitous “Dirty Dozen” fruits---those that are generally ridden with high levels of pesticide residue, even after you wash them.
Selecting A Site
Strawberries need three things to grow well: lots of sunlight, rich soil, and good drainage.
Strawberries need a minimum of six hours of sun per day.
Soil that is high in organic matter is absolutely necessary. To get your strawberries off to a good start, clear the area of all weeds and grass, and dig two to three inches of compost into the top few inches of soil. Besides requiring rich soil. Strawberries also prefer slightly acidic soil wit a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. Test your soil for pH, and then amend it if needed to raise its acidity level.
Strawberries hate sitting in water. They need consistent moisture, but will rot if the site drains poorly. If your site has poor drainage, consider building a raised bed.
Selecting a Strawberry Type
When you go to order or purchase your strawberry plants, you'll discover that they are classified into three types: June-bearing, ever-bearing, and day-neutral. Each type has its strengths and weaknesses, and will produce at different times during the season.
June-bearing: As the name suggests, June-bearing varieties bear all of their fruit in June. You can purchase early, mid, or late season varieties, but all that means is that they will produce sometime in early, mid, or late June. These plants grow quite large and develop long runners, so they work well in a dedicated strawberry patch, where their runners can grow into new plants. These produce a large crop all at one time. June-bearing varieties won't produce fruit until their second season of growth.
Ever-Bearing: Ever-bearing strawberries produce fruit from late spring until early fall. They will regularly develop fruit, but never very much at any one time. The plants stay fairly small, and don't produce vigorous runners. With ever-bearing varieties, you'll be able to harvest berries in your first season.
Day-Neutral: Day-neutral varieties regularly produce fairly decent crops of berries from spring until fall, with a fairly large crop in the fall. The plants stay small, but produce vigorously. The only drawback to day-neutral varieties is that they don't do well in areas with very hot summers. As with ever-bearing varieties, day-neutrals will produce berries in their first season of growth.
Planting strawberries is fairly straightforward. In your prepared bed, dig holes the size of the rootball and plant it with the crown of the plant slightly above soil level. Backfill, and water your plants in well. Once your plants are in, mulch the beds with straw, shredded leaves, compost, or pine needles. Pine needles are great because they will raise the acidity level of your soil as they break down.
Watch the plants for first signs of flower buds. If you are growing ever-bearing or day-neutral varieties, remove these first buds to allow the plant to establish itself more before fruit production begins.
A final note on planting: don't plant strawberries in or near an area that is currently growing tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, or eggplant. These plants can harbor verticillium wilt, which can infect strawberry plants.
Strawberry Patch Maintenance
Strawberries don't like to sit in water, but they also need fairly consistent water available to them. This is why well-drained soil is so important. Strawberries require one inch of watter per week to produce fruit. They are shallow-rooted, and if the soil dries out too much, fruit production will halt. Mulching, as mentioned above, also helps keep the soil moisture level more consistent.
Strawberries need constant nutrition to maintain fruit yields. Feed your strawberry plants once per month from June to September with blood meal and bone meal.
In addition to the watering and fertilizing, it is important to keep your strawberry patch weed free, especially since weeds will steal moisture and nutrients from your shallow-rooted strawberries very quickly. Keep your berries harvested, and remove any rotting fruit immediately.
Pest and Disease Control
Happily, strawberries have very few pest problems, but the ones they do have can be a real pain. The biggest pest for any berry grower is that of the feathered variety. Birds like nothing better than to devour fresh berries. They always seem to get to mine right before they're ripe enough to pick. To keep birds off of your berries, simply cover the plant or your entire patch with netting. You can purchase bird netting in any home and garden center.
The other main pests of strawberries are slugs and snails. They find strawberry foliage absolutely delectable. To keep them away, the best thing to do is install copper edging around the perimeter of your bed. Slugs and snails won't cross copper because it creates an electric reaction when it comes into contact with their slime.
As far as diseases go, the most prevalent one among strawberry plants is verticillium wilt. This fungal disease will not only prevent fruit production, but it will also kill the plant. There is no way to control it once your plants show signs of infection. The only remedy is to pull the plants out and start over in a new area. The best way to avoid having to deal with it is to choose varieties that are certified as being resistant to verticillium wilt.
Once you have your strawberry plants planted and growing happily, you'll be enjoying the fruits of your labor for years on end, with very little maintenance on your part.