How to grow strawberries

The wild and hybrid strawberries we grow in our Alaska gardens cannot be bought in grocery stores. Even if you were lucky enough to find ripe berries in a local farmers’ market, the sweet delicate flavor of a freshly picked strawberry would already be lost. The strawberry is a native plant here in Alaska and there are many places where you can find strawberries growing wild, like the town of Gustavus in Southeast Alaska. When our family lived in Juneau we once spent a memorable weekend in the small community of Gustavus. The main purpose of our family trip was to take a Glacier Bay National Park day cruise, but we also spent a lot of time exploring Gustavus on our bikes. We were delighted to find fields of wild strawberries to enjoy while we took our breaks. Wild strawberries may be very small, but their unique and sweet taste makes up for their size. In Interior Alaska, near Fairbanks, my aunt and uncle have found enough wild strawberries, in fields near their home, to make a batch of strawberry jam for the past two years. Here in Southcentral Alaska I’m not aware of any large strawberry patches growing in the wild, but you can easily and successfully grow them in your own yard.

Growing Strawberries in AlaskaDelicious strawberries | Credit: Cecil Sanders

Neighbors and friends are often willing to share strawberry starts from their gardens. Accept them … even if they cannot tell you what type of strawberry they are. There are hardy strawberry plants that have been propagated in homestead farms and gardens throughout Alaska since the early 1900s. I have a couple types of strawberries in my yard that were given to me by my grandma and my great aunt years ago. No one in our extended family knows for sure what specific types they are, but they are at least forty years old and probably older. I have shared my strawberries with friends, family and neighbors and they report successful patches also.

When you buy strawberry plants from a commercial nursery you need to be careful to know what type you are buying. Several imported varieties are only good as annuals in Alaska. If you are fine with an annual strawberry some of these can do great in your gardens, pots or in hanging baskets. I would like to give you a list of varieties available, but I called several Southcentral greenhouses and none offered the same varieties recommended by the cooperative extension service. Only two of the greenhouses I called were knowledgeable about strawberry varieties developed in Alaska. Ask your local nursery questions if you are looking for a perennial strawberry variety that will prove hardy and return every year. If you can’t find a local nursery selling a variety that will survive the winters in your area of Alaska, local garden club plant sales could be a good option. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Growing strawberries in Alaska has a rich history of experimentation.

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Planting strawberries | Credit: Cecil Sanders

Planting Strawberries

July is not too late to start your own perennial strawberry patch if you can find starts at a local greenhouse or from a friend or neighbor. Start your patch in a sunny south facing space if possible. My patch does well in partial shade, but I know I would have better results in a sunnier area of my yard. Give your new plants a fighting chance by starting them in a cultivated area as weed free as possible. When transplanting strawberry plants be sure to cover the roots and just the lower part of the crown when planting. Water the transplants well with a water soluble fertilizer solution. Keep your new patch weeded.

Strawberry Care

An established perennial strawberry patch is easy to care for. Most varieties generally need to be fertilized lightly with 8-32-16 in the spring. I weed my strawberry beds 2 or 3 times during the summer. I would have better production if I weeded and fertilized more often, but our strawberries are resilient enough to survive and continue to spread with minimal care. Strawberries do well with about 1 inch of water per week. In the late fall if your patch is exposed and snow has not fallen in time to do the job, protect your patch with straw. I will say I have never covered my patch with anything and it has done just fine. However, my patch is in a protected area that gets covered naturally in leaves.

Consider strawberries for an edible ground cover. If I could talk my husband into it I would dig up most (if not all) of “his” lawn and a good portion of that space would be given over to strawberries. Their habit of spreading by runners allows strawberries to take over large spaces in no time.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Last Frontier Magazine.

Picking a Strawberry Plant Variety to Grow

Before you begin growing strawberries in your garden, you need to determine which variety of strawberry plant you want to grow. To gain deeper understanding of the types of strawberries and varieties of strawberries available to choose from, see our Strawberry Varieties page.

1. Pick Which Type of Strawberry

There are three main types of strawberries: June-bearing, everbearing, and day-neutral. Some people consider everbearing and day-neutral varieties to be the same thing, but they are actually different. For a full discussion of each, see the Strawberry Varieties reference page. In short, June-bearers have the largest fruit but only produce one big crop over a week or two. Everbearers produce a larger early crop, smaller late crop, and a few berries in between, while day-neutrals produce throughout the growing season. Everbearers and day-neutrals typically produce less and smaller berries overall than do the June-bearing varieties.

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Considering these characteristics will determine which type is right for you. If you want fresh berries throughout the year and don’t mind picking smaller and fewer, go with a day-neutral or everbearing variety. If you want sheer quantity of berries, go with a June-bearer (what most people do).

Considerations on how you plan to use your strawberries also come into play when determining which type to buy and plant. If you want to can or preserve your harvest, it is easiest to accomplish your goals with the larger size and quantity that come from June-bearing strawberries.

2. Pick the Right Variety

Not all strawberry varieties are created equally. Strawberries are temperate by nature and can be finicky as to what makes them happy. So, thanks to decades of dedicated breeding programs, scores of specialized strawberry varieties have been developed and released. The most generally-adapted cultivars have become quite popular, but the popular varieties might not be the best choice for your location. To help you find which variety is suitable for your state/location, I have gathered the recommendations by state Extensions and compiled them in one place. To be sure you get an appropriate variety, check the recommended varieties for your area and choose one suitable to your locale.

You may also want to extend your growing season by choosing early-, mid-, and late-season varieties. Doing so can extend your harvesting period as follows:

how to grow strawberriesBy choosing multiple strawberry varieties with different production peaks, it is possible to extend the strawberry season to about a full month for the June-bearing plants, which tend to produce the biggest strawberries.

And, if you have garden space, you might want to consider growing some novelty or specialty strawberries. Pineberries are the latest to spark wide-spread interest due to their white color, red seeds, and pineapple taste. Also, this season is also expected to be the first prominent one for the brand-new Purple Strawberries (not-GMO). And, absolutely no strawberry variety tops the classic and diminutive Alpine varieties for sheer taste and aroma for specialty and gourmet recipes. The possibilities are almost endless!

If you are completely at a loss for where to start, you can always call your local Cooperative Extension and ask them for recommendations. They can give you more specific information on which strawberries grow well in your area. As new and improved strawberry cultivars are also introduced each year, your Cooperative Extension can also clue you in to any new developments or local suppliers where you can find a good cultivar for your area. Or, if you don’t want to call your state extension, you can review state by state recommendations here: Recommended Strawberry Varieties by State.

Another factor to consider when picking a strawberry plant variety is susceptibility to Verticillium fungus. This fungus causes the most common strawberry disease, Verticillium wilt (or Verticillium rot), which will end fruit production by killing growing strawberries. Since there is no practical way to kill the fungus once infection sets in, this prevalent disease is best prevented by obtaining and planting strawberry plant varieties that are certified to be resistant to Verticillium wilt.

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Once you settle on growing a strawberry plant variety, you need to get your plants. There are numerous catalogs and nurseries from which you can buy certified, healthy plants. With the proliferation of online suppliers, getting specific strawberry plants to grow has never been easier!

Suggested Varieties

There is a wide selection of strawberry varieties to choose from that will perform well in New England, but it is important to select types that have resistance to red stele and Verticillium root rots, produce vigorous plants, and have a consistent record of good yields and high quality fruit. Listed below are varieties that have performed dependably in Northern New England. Further details on variety characteristics and performance are available from your  Cooperative Extension office.

  • Earliglow: An early berry of high quality. Fruit is firm with excellent flavor and color. Yields may be low in New England. Fruit size tends to decrease as season progresses. Plants are vigorous runner producers.
  • Wendy: Productive. Medium-sized fruit with good flavor and color. Plants are vigorous and produce runners freely.
  • Cavendish: Very productive. Large, firm fruit with good flavor, but with an uneven ripening habit. Plants are moderately vigorous.
  • Jewel: Glossy, attractive, medium-sized fruit with firm texture and flavor. Good production. Plants are vigorous.
  • Allstar: Berries are large, conical and light red to orange with mild, sweet flavor. The plants are vigorous and make runners freely.
  • Sparkle: Fruit flavor is excellent, but fruit is dark red and somewhat soft. Fruit size tends to decrease as season progresses. Plants are vigorous and produce many runners.

It is usually best to plant two or more varieties. Performance will vary according to the conditions at each site. Try new varieties in small trial plantings, next to a variety with which you are familiar.

Disease and Insect Control

Gray Mold on Strawberries; photo by J. F. Dill

Gray Mold on Strawberries; photo by J. F. Dill

Strawberries are subject to attack by fungus diseases, such as root rots and gray mold, and several types of insects, including tarnished plant bugs and strawberry bud weevils, but many problems can be prevented with proper planning and care. Plant varieties that are resistant to red stele and Verticillium root rots. Discourage insect pests by keeping the planting weed-free. Prevent gray mold by keeping the plant rows narrow to improve air circulation and mulching between rows.

For specific pest identification and control measures, contact your local UMaine Extension county office.

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