Bustin' with berries

Garden: Flavorful strawberries are relatively easy to grow at home.

May 30, 1999|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Red-ripe and bursting with juice, strawberries are the sweet taste of childhood. Their scent conjures lazy days, warm evenings and suppers finished with homemade strawberry shortcake, warm from the oven and topped with sliced berries and clouds of whipped cream. They are spring's first fruit, one of the joys of living.

Strawberries are relatively easy to grow in your own little patch or in a strawberry jar on the patio. A strawberry jar won't produce great quantities, but it will be enough for a few blissfully decadent daiquiris.

There are two types of strawberry -- June bearers, which actually begin coming on here now, and Everbearing. Everbearing are in reality thrice-bearing: They set a crop once in the season's beginning, another in mid-summer and a third in fall.

Until recently, everbearers have had less flavor than June-bearing varieties, but Tribute and Tri-star "break the mold," according to Sylvia Robertson of Brittingham Plant Farms in Salisbury.

June bearers ripen within a week to 10 days of each other. One of the keys to successful strawberry cultivation is choosing the right cultivar for your area. Luckily, the USDA breeding program at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center has spent years developing strawberries that are perfectly adapted to our climate.

Strawberries need full sun, fertile soil, good moisture and drainage.

They like a slightly acid soil. To prepare the soil, till thoroughly to a depth of 6 inches to 8 inches. Some experts recommend mixing in rotted barn manure before planting, but Robertson disagrees.

"The most important tip ... is not to fertilize prior to planting," she says, adding that fertilizing before blossoming will produce heavy leaf growth at the expense of blossoms and fruit.

Robertson suggests fertilizing again in late August when the fruit buds are forming. "It will stimulate berries for next spring," she explains.

Planting instructions usually say to pinch off blossoms the first year to allow the plant to put all its energy into growing "daughter," plants, the self-rooting offshoots that perpetuate the patch. But Robertson says that you can have fruit the first year. "You need to choose between lots of berries or lots of runners the first year so you don't exhaust the plants," she explains. "For first-year fruit, let blossoms produce, then fertilize, and cut off some of the daughter plants."

"The rule of thumb is to leave a couple or three runners per plant the first year," says John Miller, president of Miller Nurseries in Canandaigua, N.Y. "Some people don't leave any the first year, but after that, keep them to three or four runners. It's better because then the mother plant can put its energy into berry production instead of babies."

The second year, thin out the row after fruiting. Cut off leaves, but be sure to leave the crown, the knot of root and shoot at the center.

To do this, many people set their mower at its highest setting and mow the patch. Once leaves are sheared, narrow rows to about 12 inches wide.

Leave one crown every five or six inches in each direction," says Sam Ervin, president of Indiana Berry & Plant Co. "Make rows 12 to 24 inches wide max. It's better to have four rows than a 10- by 10-foot patch since berries produce best on the edge of the rows where the light reaches them."

"And keep the weeds out," Robertson advises. "Mulch with straw in between the rows because straw neither adds nor takes away from the soil pH. But don't put straw too close to plants to keep from inhibiting the rooting of daughter plants."

The best time of year to plant strawberry plants is early spring, though you can plant successfully now and in early August. When planting late, pinch off blossoms the first year, and keep well watered and mulched.

Sources:

Allen Plant Co.

P.O. Box 310

Fruitland, Md. 21826-0310

410-742-7122

Fax: 410-742-7120

Brittingham Plant Farms

P.O. Box 2538

Salisbury, Md. 21802

410-749-5153

Fax: 410-749-5148

Indiana Berry & Plant Co.

5218 W. 500 S.

Huntingburg, Ind. 47542

812-683-3055

Fax: 812-683-2004

J.E. Miller Nurseries

5060 West Lake Road

Canandaigua, N.Y. 14424

800-836-9630

White Flower Farm

Route 63, P.O. Box 50

Litchfield, Conn. 06759-0050

800-503-9624

Bustin' out all over:

STRAWBERRIES

Places to pick your own strawberries

Baltimore County

Steven Huber, Sr.

12208 Philadelphia Rd.

Bradshaw, Md. 21021

410-679-1948

Charles County

Rose Hill Farm

Route 6

Port Tobacco, Md. 20677

301-934-4006

Carroll County

Baugher's Farm Orchard Market

1236 Baugher Rd.

Westminster, Md. 21158

410-876-5642

410-857-0111 (pick-your-own information)

Sewell's Farm

3400 Harney Rd.

Taneytown, Md. 21787

410-756-4397

Cecil County

Walnut Springs Farm

3910 Blue Ball Rd.

Elkton, Md. 21921

410-398-3451

Frederick County

Glade-Link Farms

Route 194

New Midway, Md.

301-898-7131

Harford County

Shaw Orchards

Route 23 at Maryland-Pennsylvania line

Stewartstown, Pa. 17363

410-692-2429

717-993-2974

www.shaworchards.com

Howard County

Sharp's at Waterford Farm

4003 Jennings Chapel Rd.

Brookeville, Md. 20833

301-854-6375 e-mail: dsharpfarm@aol.com

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