Autumn is the season for apples, squash, pumpkins, strawberries . . .
Yes, there are strawberries in Howard County gardens this fall. In an experiment I wish I had made years ago, I have discovered the joy of spring, summer and fall strawberries in my garden. I did this by planting one of the fairly new day-neutral strawberry varieties, called Tristar.
Why more local gardeners have not adopted these wonderful newcomers is hard to understand. Perhaps it is because we gardeners tend to be a little cynical. We've heard claims of "continuous fruit," "grows anywhere" and "mouth-watering" before and experienced disappointing results too often.
With these new strawberries, however, there is no disappointment. While the fruit would not win awards for mammoth size, the berries are not substandard. The plants in my garden are better than ever right now.
Traditional June-bearing strawberry varieties are forming flower buds right now, triggered by shorter days. This produces next spring's fruit and then runners in the summer. Guardian, Earlyglow and Surecrop are local favorite varieties in this class.
To make things confusing, there are two types of strawberries commonly referred to as everbearing. One type that has been available for many years should more properly be called double-cropping. Like the June-bearers, these plants fruit in the spring. Then a second set of buds forms in the summer for a separate fall crop, which usually has smaller berries. Ozark Beauty is the most common variety. This type is quickly being eclipsed by the new day-neutral varieties.
Day-neutral strawberries are just that. They go on producing buds, fruit and runners regardless of length of day. They rely only on spring warmth to get them going and will continue to produce as long as temperatures stay between 35 and 75 degrees. They display flowers, fruit and runners at almost any time between June and mid-October.
The two most available varieties of day-neutral strawberries were developed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture research center in Beltsville and released in 1983.
Both Tristar and Tribute are more disease resistant than their predecessors and seem well suited to local growing conditions. One drawback to these varieties noted by experts is their limited production of runners and new plants. My plants produced almost none. However, this is not a fault, but a plus in the small home garden. More original plants can be placed in a given space, and small quantities are difficult to buy anyway.
The runners that would fill in the spaces between the more widely spaced traditional beds can easily be removed.
The best time to start a strawberry bed is the summer or fall before planting. Right now is a much better time to select a site and prepare it than during the hurried early days of spring. Since strawberry plants will be with you for three or more years, good preparation will pay off with healthier, bigger plants and more fruit. Although tolerant of a range of growing conditions, strawberries prefer a sunny location on a slight slope -- spring's blossom-killing frosts settle in low-lying pockets -- and well-drained soil with a pH between 6 and 7.
A previously cultivated area, free of weeds and weed seeds, is preferable because controlling perennial weeds, especially grass, in a strawberry bed is difficult. Avoid putting the bed where tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants or raspberries have grown in the past; they have too many diseases in common. Raised beds may be used if you leave plenty of room to harvest the fruit without stepping on the plants.
If you can, have the soil tested, if only to find the pH level -- 6.2 is ideal. Work in, with a shovel or power tiller, the recommended amount of lime along with some fertilizer, manure and other organic material, such as compost and peat.
You will be ready to purchase and plant your strawberry plants in early spring, when the leaves on the trees first show green. Optimum spacing for these plants is closer than that for June-bearers. Double rows with the plants 9 to 12 inches apart, and 36 inches between the centers of the double rows work well. At this rate, you will need to purchase about 12 plants for every 6 feet of double row. Plant as directed.
All flowers should be pinched out of the new plants until July. This enables the plant to put all its energy into root and leaf growth. In a test at Cornell University, Tristar was found to produce 40 percent more fruit over the entire season with this early pruning.
In addition, all runners should be removed for the entire first year for the same reason. This will further increase long-term fruit production.
Because fruiting does take place all season, working in small amounts of fertilizer around the plants every two or three weeks is recommended.
Locally, gardeners often experience problems with birds, slugs and animals eating a good portion of their spring berries. My reluctance to try everbearing strawberries was based in part on my refusal to pamper these critters any more than I had. My fears proved groundless. After the onset of hot weather, the birds and animals seemed to find better fare elsewhere.
The ripe berries remained unscathed until I could pick them. The slugs were more controllable as their moist hiding spots disappeared. I did notice that the berries got smaller with hot, dry weather but are back to regular size now that it's cooler.
Fresh-picked strawberries on your ice cream in July, with a melon salad in August and atop cereal in the fall will convert you to these berries too.