(Lori Adams, who owns Down-To-Earth U-Pick Garden and is a frequent vendor at the Sitka Farmers Market, will be writing a regular garden column in the Daily Sitka Sentinel this summer. The Sentinel is allowing us to reprint the columns on this site after they first appear in the newspaper. This column appeared on Page 9 of the Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, edition of the Daily Sitka Sentinel.)
GARDENING IN SITKA
By Lori Adams
EVERYTHING I’VE LEARNED ABOUT GROWING STRAWBERRIES
Strawberries do well here in Sitka, but they come with some challenges. I think one of the key secrets to success is location, location, location.
Strawberries are a perennial crop that come in two basic types:
- JUNE BEARING/SHORT-DAY cultivars that produce a heavy crop over a short period in the summer, or
- EVER BEARING/DAY NEUTRAL cultivars that produce a smaller crop that is stretched over a longer season.
Within these two types there are many different varieties. Most strawberries that are grown here in Sitka have been passed down generation after generation and originated from early breeding work at the USDA Sitka Experimental Station during the 1920s. The berries from these plants are small, pale in color and not very sweet, but they make up for it by being very hearty and producing large crops. In Sitka it is very difficult to grow large, beautiful red berries with the “true strawberry” flavor. Besides the two basic types there are also alpine and specialty varieties.
Strawberries can be grown in containers, rows or patches. Most Sitkans have patches because of the way the plants grow and multiply, but your production will go up if you have rows and take the effort to control plant growth. Containers can be helpful in keeping the fruit off the ground where it will rot or be eaten by slugs.
The best strawberries I have tasted here in Sitka were grown in rock walls. I believe this is because of the heat retention of the stones, the lack of slugs and soil, and the excellent drainage a rock wall provides. The worst place to grow strawberries is in the shade, next to brushy slug-infested areas or areas with poor drainage.
Strawberry plants can be grown from seeds or “runners.” Runners look like a stem/root that grows from the mother plant. This runner grows about a foot long and then produces a baby strawberry plant that will take root and start to grow on its own. To harvest runners simply cut rooting baby plants free from the mother plant and plant on their own.
The life expectancy of any one plant is about six years with only the first third years being highly productive, so the best plan is to grow a row of plants and consistently remove every single runner for two years. On the third year allow no more than five runners to grow on each plan,t then harvest the runners mid-summer and plant them in a different bed being sure to diligently remove any runners that they themselves might produce. At the end of the season just tear out the old bed. Repeat.
Strawberries like soil that is full of organic material that is low in nitrogen. If the nitrogen level is too high then you will end up with fabulous greens that will make your neighbors jealous but very few berries, and the berries you do get will not be able to ripen because of the shade of the foliage.
Berries require lots of potassium (seaweed) and only a trace of lime (seashell sand) to thrive. The best way to apply seaweed is to mulch monthly with a thin layer around plants being sure not to cover up the growing center, or the “crown” of the plant. To prepare a new bed just load it up with seaweed in the Spring, let it break down and then till it into the soil before planting time.
A strawberry plant has tough gnarly roots that grow from the crown. When planting, it is critical that the crown is right at ground level — if it is buried it will definitely rot and die and if it is planted too high it will dry out and die. Dig a shallow hole with a cone of soil in the middle, set the crown on top of the cone, spread the roots out like a spider in the hole and then cover with dirt. Firm the soil around the plant being sure to position the crown properly.
Floating row cover can be helpful but it is critical that you remove it when the plants start to flower. In order for pollination to occur the blooms must be accessible to bees and other natural pollinators.
Once strawberries start to ripen it is important to pick them almost every day because they are very perishable and easily susceptible to rot and slugs. Try to leave their “caps” on, lay them in a shallow container rather than stacking them in a deep bowl, and do not wash them until right before it’s time to eat them.
In the fall you can mulch the bed heavily with seaweed being sure not to bury the plants themselves and then spread straw over the entire bed, plants and all, to protect them from frost heaves.
On a final note, there doesn’t seem to be anyone growing a large enough volume of strawberries to sell them. If you have some extra garden space or an empty greenhouse, please consider growing strawberries and selling them at the Sitka Farmers Market. We’d all love you for it.
Brought to you by Down-To-Earth U-Pick Garden
2103 Sawmill Creek Road
Open June-August / Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
747-6108 or 738-2241