By Cat McCabe

Few things say “summer” like sweet, succulent strawberries. Growing them at home is a pleasant ritual, sometimes fraught with bugs and weeds, but almost always fruitful. According to Ohio State University, just 25 plants can provide enough strawberries to satisfy the average family, with each plant producing up to a quart of fruit per season. Strawberries are an excellent use of garden space, high in vitamin C and, best of all, they can produce in their first season when properly cared for. Plant day-neutral strawberry cultivars in late April for best, first-year results.

Strawberries grow best in deep, rich soil that drains well. If drainage is a problem in your garden, create a raised bed for strawberries by adding equal parts organic compost, peat and sand in a layer 6 to 8 inches thick. Avoid planting in areas where tomatoes or potatoes have recently been grown. Certain viruses and diseases may be lingering in the soil, and they will create big problems for strawberry plants. Dig trenches 2 feet apart in the planting area, deep enough to set the plant’s roots without bending them horizontally. Set the plants in the trenches, 8 to 12 inches apart, cover the roots and half the crown of the plant with soil and tamp it down firmly. Water deeply after planting.

Pinch off root runners from strawberry plants whenever they appear throughout the first season after planting. Pinch off blossoms for the first six weeks, then let them go and fruit will set. Keep soil loose and cultivated with a spade or garden claw, removing weeds whenever they pop up. Water once a week during the growing season, and more often in times of drought. A layer of straw or pine mulch will do much to suppress weeds and hold moisture in the soil. Fertilizing should not be necessary if soil has been properly amended with organic compost. If soils remain poor, an ounce of nitrogen per 100 square feet should balance it nicely.

Day-neutral strawberry plants will begin to bear in August and continue into October. Unlike June-bearing cultivars that yield one large crop in June, day-neutral varieties yield several smaller crops over several months. The larger the plant is, the more fruit it will produce. Clipping off the flower stalks earlier in the season forces the plant to grow more to produce more flowers, resulting in a big healthy plant. After harvest is complete, cover with a thick layer of straw mulch to provide insulation over the winter. Strawberry production will lessen over the next two years, so it’s wise to replant the bed every three years with fresh stock.