- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Brad Kukuk says there’s nothing better than picking a handful of fresh strawberries from his backyard berry patch. Although he could buy his berries at the grocery store, Mr. Kukuk, 37, says the homegrown variety from his 5-year-old patch in Arlington tastes best. He also uses the berries to make jams, which he often gives asChristmas gifts.

“They are warm and juicy,” he says. “It’s amazing that they exist. Who could have dreamed up something that tastes so good? It satisfies the little kid inside me.”

Growing a strawberry patch is one of the simplest options for a home gardener. The fruit requires a small investment and produces a hearty summer crop. Because the plants are low-growing perennials, they can flourish in tight spaces, even in pots. In winter months when they aren’t producing fruit, strawberry plants also make an attractive ground cover.

When planting a strawberry patch, the first decision is whether to use June-bearing or ever-bearing plants, says Orion Taylor, assistant manager for outdoor plants at the Behnke Nurseries Co. in Potomac. Either way, the patch should be planted by the end of March, with blooms appearing in late April and berries in June.

The June-bearing variety takes about 13 months to produce fruit. Therefore, if planted this spring, the plants won’t yield a crop until early summer 2005.

When the fruit arrives on June-bearing plants, it all ripens at once instead of throughout the summer. The berries also usually are bigger than on the ever-bearing variety, which gives a continuous crop of fruit from June until early fall, starting the first year the patch is planted.

“It’s an old-fashioned, do-it-yourself kind of plant,” Mr. Taylor says. “There’s always something romantic or attractive about growing your own fruit. … If the grandparents had a strawberry patch, the children would always remember that.”

After choosing the type of plants for the garden, Mr. Taylor says picking the right amount of land is next. The average size plot for a back yard is about 10 feet by 10 feet, which should be in direct sunlight. Once the bed is established, it probably will yield about 10 to 15 quarts of fruit a season.

Weeds should be cleared, and the ground should be tilled with an equal amount of topsoil, sand and cow manure. Also, the soil should be tilled to a depth of 6 to 8 inches to allow for the plants’ root development.

Then, the plants must be adequately spaced, says Lynn Moore, president of Larriland Farm in Woodbine, Md., where customers pick their own fruit. Strawberries are for sale for about four weeks beginning around Memorial Day. On the 285-acre farm, Ms. Moore has about 15 acres of strawberry plants. Last year, the berries cost about $1.49 per pound.

From her experience on the farm, Ms. Moore says home gardeners often allow their strawberry patches to grow too thick. The plants should be spaced about 2 feet apart, depending on the type of plants and the amount of space available for the plot. Rows need to be spaced about 36 inches apart. As the plants grow, they inevitably will spread and need to be trimmed.

“Fruit gardening is very sensual,” she says. “You have these beautiful colors, like the deep ruby reds of the strawberries. You have the nice soft texture of the fruit. Yet it’s firm enough to take it off the plant. You have the fragrances. And when you pick it, it makes a popping sound.”

When strawberry plants are put in the ground, they need to be set at just the right height, says Gene Sumi, garden horticulturalist at Homestead Gardens Inc. in Davidsonville, Md. Otherwise, the plant doesn’t develop properly.

The top of the crown, where the green foliage starts, is as deep as it should be planted. If it’s set higher, the plant will dry out. If it’s placed deeper, it will rot. The root system should spread in an even, radial fashion so the roots won’t tangle. After planting, mulch, in the form of straw, should be spread across the area, which eliminates damp soil. After about two weeks, fertilizer also should be applied.

Mr. Sumi suggests following the directions that come with most strawberry plants for specific planting instructions. Another advantage to purchasing strawberry plants from a nursery is that they will be virus-free. Sometimes gardeners have to replant an entire strawberry bed because a virus infects it.

“Don’t take a transplant from someone’s garden,” Mr. Sumi says. “Virus stunts the plant, and it doesn’t produce well. It saps the strength. There is no cure for viruses. The only way to treat a virus in plants is to leave the ground fallow and not plant something for a couple years. If it doesn’t have a host, the virus usually dies out of its own accord.”

If a gardener has had a healthy strawberry patch for many years, it can be maintained with little effort, says Tom Tyler, extension agent in the Arlington County office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

In the coming weeks, he says, gardeners with already-established strawberry beds should take the straw off the plot from the winter months and make sure to water it. Usually gardeners cover their entire plot with straw in the fall for protection during the colder seasons. In the spring, the old straw must be removed and replaced with smaller amounts of fresh straw. If the straw is allowed to decompose, disease could occur.

The bed also should be protected from late frosts by being re-covered with additional straw when necessary. If it becomes excessively cold, the flowers might be injured. If the flowers are harmed, they cannot produce berries later in the growing cycle.

In spring and summer, gardeners should water the bed about once a week. If the weather is hot and dry, however, the patch may need water twice a week. When a new patch is being started, each plant requires about a gallon of water immediately after it’s planted, best applied through a sprinkling system.

The fruit should be picked as soon as it becomes ripe. Otherwise, rotting berries may attract rabbits, groundhogs or deer, which can destroy a garden. If necessary, a scarecrow or a fence of chicken wire can be added to the garden to deter animals.

“It’s a beautiful plant when it’s blooming and fruiting,” Mr. Tyler says. “You can incorporate it into your landscape.”

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