Monday, September 15, 2014
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Published: Wednesday, 5/20/2009

Plant strawberries now to have shortcake later

Before you pay for ground cover to plant around your garden, try planting one that will pay you back: Strawberries can make a great ground cover and they are one of our favorite snacks.

When you pick a variety of strawberry, look for its maturity date. Choose a few different varieties that have staggered finishing times and you will stretch strawberry shortcake season a few more weeks. Some berries are considered dessert quality and will grow a little bigger with stronger structure. If you are thinking about making jelly or jam, look for a varieties that are smaller and juicier.

Earliglow and Annapolis are given high marks among the early varieties. Honeoye, Lester, Surecrop, and Cavendish are at the top of the list for producing large to medium berries in the middle of the season. Lateglow and Kent are two reliable late-season varieties.

Now is a good time to plant strawberries. To establish a good strawberry patch, wait at least one year before harvesting too many of them. Pinch off most of the first-year blossoms so the plants will have a chance to grow a strong root system. Give them about four feet between rows and two feet between plants. This will give them a little room to fill in. These plants should last about three to four years, then it is time to work in some new ones.

Strawberry plants don't need a whole lot of help spreading out. They are natural propagators. One plant starts as a mother plant. This original crown sends out daughter plants which will produce berries for the next season. When the mother plant has given you her fruit, she is ready for a haircut.

Buy disease-resistant varieties and rotate strawberry crops to fight of fungus. Protect your crop to keep the birds, slugs, and beetles from getting the fruit before you do. Some gardeners like to cover their crop with netting to keep the birds out or temporarily scare them away by hanging some disposable pie tins around the strawberry patch. They will scare off the birds as they clang in the breeze. The sun reflecting on the foil will also keep the snatchers away for a little while.

Mowing and thinning right after the season ends also gives those strawberry-plant daughters a good start. Cut them down to about an inch above the crown and thin the plants to keep them in narrow rows six to twelve inches wide. A hoe, spade, or rototiller will keep them in line. Thinner rows will make them easier to pick and weed.

Treat the matted row with a balanced fertilizer. Ten to 15 pounds per 1,000 square feet is recommended. Keep them watered and weeded as the daughters start to sprout.

If you keep your new ground cover healthy with water and fertilizer, you can end up with a crop of 50 to 70 plants. That's enough to feed a family of five. That is, unless you have strawberry snatchers like I do around the house. Maybe I should pick them myself!

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