Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Just What Does It Take to Grow a Strawberry?

Just What Does It Take to Grow a Strawberry?
By Laurel Blomquist
Berries getting ready to go home after the party!

Strawberry season is upon us! For those of you who have been eating with the seasons for some time now, you know that this time of year is one of the most highly anticipated. What you may not know is that in order for us to provide you with as many great-tasting strawberries as we can for as long as possible, we have to plan years in advance. I sat down with Farmer Richard to get the scoop on how we grow strawberries, from start to finish.

Step 1: It all starts with genetics. We carefully select varieties based on trials we do at the farm, along with information received from Nourse Farms in Massachusetts, which is where we get our strawberry crowns for planting. We choose varieties with excellent flavor and disease resistance. Many of the plants at Nourse were bred in Canada, while other varieties were developed in the US and Germany.

The early season varieties that we are currently growing include Earliglow and AC Wendy. Earliglow is a favorite among CSA members and market patrons alike, known for its excellent flavor. It’s an heirloom variety that produces a large amount of small berries. AC Wendy is highly prolific, providing the bulk of the first crop of berries.
Strawberry Field

Midseason varieties include Darselect, Flavorfest, and Jewel. Darselect is high-yielding and dependable. Flavorfest is a new favorite, with excellent flavor and large, disease-resistant berries. Jewel was developed at Cornell University and is our best main-season plant and a reliable performer.

Our late season variety is AC Valley Sunset, which is great at extending the season a few more days. Even though we grow early, mid-, and late season berries, the total season time is usually no more than four weeks. If we get a hot streak during strawberry season, the berries can ripen very fast!  No sooner than you get to the end of the field, you have to turn around and start picking at the other end again!  We purposely plan Strawberry Day to land in approximately the third week, when berry production is peaking. We need your help to get the berries out of the field, and you reap the benefits by getting the freshest, most flavorful berries around!

New strawberry field just starting out!
Step 2: Now that we know which varieties we want to grow, it’s time to start planting. In the first year, we plant strawberry crowns in April or May. We make sure to choose a field that did not recently have either berries or plants from the solanaceae
family (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers), for maximum disease resistance. We grow plants using a matted row system, which means that we space the crowns out so that their daughter plants will fill in the row later. Spacing of the crowns is important. We need enough room for the daughter plants to fill in, but not so much that weeds will overtake the plants. Too many plants in the row will bring on leaf diseases and pests, thus proper spacing will maximize berry yield. 
Step 3: De-blossoming. In the first year, the plants will develop blossoms, but we don’t want those blossoms to grow into strawberries just yet! So we remove the blossoms, which encourages the plant to put out runners. At the ends of these runners are daughter plants. The best strawberries come from daughter plants. We space the daughter plants out to fill in the spaces between the crowns in the row. Keeping the bed weed-free is important so that we have space to place the daughter plants.

Japanese Millet cover crop in with the Strawberry field.
Step 4: Weeding! Yes, it’s not the most glamorous step, but necessary to keep the bed productive for several years. The bed needs to be kept weed-free while the crown grows runners and daughter plants. Weeding, while necessary, is tricky, since the roots of the crown are so near the surface. For the first couple of months, we can do this using a special tractor attachment with soft “fingers” to weed around the crowns. Later in the summer, around August, we need to weed by hand, because there are too many runners and daughter plants filling in the space. At this point, we plant a thick stand of Japanese millet, which will prevent future weeds and become a living mulch. It will winter kill with the first frost.
Mulching the field for winter.
Step 5: Mulching. In the late fall, we place a heavy layer of rye straw mulch over the plants to provide them with a more stable environment over the winter and prevent the ground they are in from freezing and thawing.  Strawberry plants are planners. In the late summer and early fall, they are thinking about their conditions and whether or not to grow a large crop the following summer. If the plants have been well weeded and fertilized, with adequate water and sunlight, they think that conditions are ripe (no pun intended) for a bountiful harvest the following year, and they form blossom buds that will become dormant over the winter and then produce flowers and fruit the following summer. If weeds are overtaking the plants, or they are lacking in nutrients, water, or sunlight, these blossom buds will not form, lowering overall yield for the following year. You can see how one year’s harvest is affected by the previous year’s maintenance (or lack thereof). These blossom buds are very sensitive to frost, which is why a thick layer of mulch is necessary.

Cover being unrolled over the Strawberries.

Covering the Strawberries.
Step 6: Insulating. In the early spring, around the first or second week of April, we check the plants for signs of new growth. Once the plants have started growing new leaves, we remove most of the thick mulch layer so the plants can emerge and grow, leaving a thin layer of straw under each plant. This layer will help deter weeds and will also give the berries a clean spot to land once they grow. You may think that this is how strawberries got their name, but humans were harvesting wild strawberries long before they used this cultivation practice. After the mulch is partially removed, an agricultural blanket is placed over the entire bed. We use this cover to protect the plants from frost.  At this point in the season we may still have some frosty nights.  The cover protects the blossom buds from freezing, which could damage the berry and impact our overall yields. 

Strawberries all covered up and safe from the frost!
Strawberries under the covers.
Step 7: Uncovering. In the late spring of the 2nd year, after threat of the last frost has passed, the blanket is removed. The plants (including the daughter plants) start producing blossoms in late May, and berries in June. It’s this brief time of the cycle that we’re in now. It may seem like a lot of berries at once, but we will lose a certain amount to birds. Bugs can also damage the berries when they enter the blossoms for sweet nectar. This is why you may find some “cat-faced” berries from time to time. The blossoms need to be pollinated in order to produce fruit, so don’t fret if you find a less-than-perfect berry. It just means that this plant got a little extra love from a bug.

Once the berry growing season is over, the beds need to be renovated so that the plants continue to produce for years to come. The plants are mowed down just above the crown, and the daughter plants are removed as well. This is done so that the plants grow new runners and daughter plants, producing delicious berries the following year. Once renovation is done, we start the process again by preparing them for winter.  After 2-3 years of berry production, depending on weed pressure, the plants are tilled in and we go back to Step 1 with a brand new set of crowns in a different field.

Picking Strawberries with Farmer Richard!
Whew! That’s a lot of year-round work for a mere month of strawberries. Now that you know how it’s done, you can appreciate these sweet beauties even more. To get a closer look at the peak production of the process, make sure you come to Strawberry Day on Sunday June 18th. We’ll have plenty of fresh berries for eating straight out of the field or for freezing for enjoyment year-round. You can see our “older” strawberry field in production and see next year’s field in its first year of being established.  They both look good now!  Farmer Richard will be there to answer any questions you may have about how to grow delicious, organic strawberries. Enjoy!

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