It’s strawberry season in the Northwest. Every year around April I give in and buy a plastic clambshell full of gorgeous berries trucked up from California. Winter’s been long, you see, and those berries just look like perfection. And every year, about two months later, I taste my first homegrown berry and I remember what a strawberry is supposed to taste like.
It’s an interesting thing. The very best strawberries will always be warm from the garden, unwashed and literally seconds from stem to mouth. A little dirt? A little funny looking? No matter. The flavor sends kids and otherwise perfectly respectable grown-ups alike onto their knees, hunting for another bright red jewel.
Yup, if you want the best strawberries, you have to grow them yourself. Fortunately this is easy to do. Strawberries are a high-reward, low-work crop. Here are five easy steps to the most delicious strawberries you’ve ever tasted.
The first step in growing really delicious strawberries is to select really delicious cultivars. Not all strawberries are bred for taste über alles. Some are better for processing, some hold up better to shipping. In my region, I’m particularly fond of Hood and Shuksan for delicious fresh eating quality.
Different areas often grow different cultivars so if you aren’t in the Maritime Northwest, check with your local Agricultural Extension agency or Master Gardener’s association for a list of locally popular strawberries ranked by flavor.
If you are in the Pac NW, as many of my readers are, this is a fantastic guide to good strawberries for this region with notes on flavor, disease resistance, yield and many other qualities.
Like all fruits, strawberries need sunlight and relative heat to develop the highest sugar content. In the Pacific Northwest they’ll take all the heat we can give, and early cropping can even be encouraged by growing strawberries in a greenhouse or under cover, but things might be different in the South and Southwest.
All else being equal, a strawberry plant grown in full, strong, all-day sun (8+ hours per day) will be more sweet and flavorful than one grown with, say, 5 hours of sun. In shade, berries might grow, but they just will not reach their flavor potential. If you only have dappled sun, look at the Woodland Strawberry (Fragaria vesca), also called the Alpine Strawberry or Fraises des Bois. It’s not a big prolific fruit-maker like the Garden Strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa), but it’s got an amazing perfume and depth of flavor that’s been winning people over for thousands of years.
Strawberries like well drained soil. In my seaside home town, Coastal Strawberries (Fragaria chiloensis) are a common ground cover at public beaches. They are bulletproof and happily grow all over sand dunes. Garden strawberries aren’t going to thrive in pure sand, but the fact that their wilder relatives do tells you something about the drainage needs of your garden berries.
Raised beds are a good idea, especially if, like me, you like in an area prone to late-spring sogginess. In heavy clay soil strawberries tend to sulk. Their roots won’t be able to dive down easily, their crowns will be prone to rot, and they will be more susceptible to the numerous viruses and funguses that can infect strawberries. Needless to say, these aren’t plants that will be pumping out the most delicious berries.
Amending with lots of compost to increase the airiness of the soil is a good idea if your soil is heavy. You might think incorporating sharp sand would help with drainage, and it can if you are willing to really go for it with the sand. But be careful if you are dealing with pretty severe clay – clay plus sand plus mixing can form a concrete-like soil that will cause you to totally give up, sell your home and try gardening somewhere else. Compost is the safer bet.
Strawberries prefer a slightly acidic soil pH (right around 6 to 6.5 keeps them happiest). Here in the Pacific Northwest, where native soil tends to run quite acidic, we generally have to lime to bring soil pH up to this level, but this won’t be true for much of the country.
For the best flavor, you have to make sure your strawberries have the minerals they need to make tasty, tasty flavor compounds, acids and sugars. A balanced slow release organic fertilizer (5-5-5) or a fruit and flower fertilizer (5-6-5 or similar) is good for strawberries unless your soil is quite mature and very rich.
I like to add fertilizer to my soil when I initially set up a new strawberry patch, working the fertilizer into the top 6 inches of soil. Base your application on the directions for your specific fertilizer, but take into consideration your existing soil fertility. If you are also adding in a bunch of compost, for example, you may want to cut back on the initial fertilizer application.
Strawberries are shallow rooted and moderately heavy feeders, which means slow release organic fertilizers (including manure and compost) will best sustain them for long-haul tasty berry making. But pay attention and if your strawberries seem hungry, side-dress them with additonal balanced or fruit and flower fertilizer. When side-dressing, little and often (or as needed) is far, far better than a big application once or twice a year.
Your strawberries will tell you if they are hungry. Look for yellowing leaves, a lack of lush growth, few or no runners and poor berry set. These are all signs of a strawberry patch that might need a meal. Before you solve the problem with the fertilizer bag, confirm that the plants aren’t thirsty or sunburned or besotted with a virus, then go ahead and side-dress.
Up until now these steps have been pretty basic: give the strawberry plant what it needs to thrive. With water, I take the opposite approach, and this is where all the difference is made.
A strawberry plant that is healthy, upright through the heat of the day (not wilting) and putting out consistent berries should be slightly underwatered. Along with cultivar choice and liberal amounts of sunshine, being stingy with the water does more to create that amazing concentrated strawberry flavor than anything else I know of.
Now I’m not suggesting you desiccate your berry plants, and here in the Northwest there’s only so much we can do to control rainfall. But if you cut back on your irrigation a bit your berries will taste far the better for it.
Fair warning: strawberries grown with less water will be smaller, too, because they won’t be pumped up full of a flavorless liquid. If I wanted giant, flavorless berries I’d just keep buying the quick-chilled, week-old imports driven up from California. But those just can’t compare to the flavor of a warm, sun-kissed, undiluted Hood at the peak of ripeness.
My goal is unsurpassed fresh-eating flavor, and keeping the strawberry plants just a little thirsty encourages the most intense, concentrated strawberry flavor.
Psst….Don’t Forget Booze
Now that fresh strawberry season is upon us, we have an obligation to use up last year’s strawberry jam. Fact. And the easiest / drunkiest way to do that? The Strawberry Jam Margarita. If you haven’t read it, check out my happy investigation into combining jam and blender drinks, plus a rather amazing mason jar trick, here.
How do you grow your best strawberries? What cultivar are you partial to? Let’s learn from each other – add any growing tips in the comments.53
dr. Dave says
Thank you for another excellent article – especially the boozy part.
We have a few strawberry plants on the deck, but we never get the berries – the birds always get to them before we do. Any suggestions for keeping the birds (and other critters) away?
Netting is the only thing I’ve been successful with. I just cut a bit from netting my mom wasn’t using and pinned it down with rocks. I’ve tried hanging pie tins and mylar ribbon to move, jangle and flash in sunlight and the breeze – FAIL. Pin that netting down well, though – some birds will find their way in somehow and you’ll have to let them loose.
To keep the birds away, we use a purpose built wooden frame with wire mesh netting across the top. We place it over whatever crop we need to protect the birds from and move it around the garden throughout the year.
I eat a lot of bananas and I find that burying banana peels all over the garden under my strawberries, tomatoes, squash, etc, is a great way to add extra nutrients to the soil. Bananas are high in potassium, which is a nutrient necessary for fruiting. This year, each of my 12 strawberry plants got the peels of 3 or so bananas tucked in under them (in addition to other organic fertilizers). My fellow pea patchers think I’m nuts when I show up with a bag full of peels, but by August they’re always commenting on how successful I seem to be!
I grow my own strawberries in California organically on 4 ft high raised beds-2.5 acres here- and find the berries superior to the clamshell ones too.
Ms. Must-stash says
Slugs are attacking my strawberries! Jerks! Any suggestions for de-sluggifying my (raised) strawberry beds?
Sluggo or any of the slug baits with iron phosphate will take care of your slugs in a couple days. Its a must for strawberry growers in the PNW
Iron Phosphate (Sluggo) is okay for organics too. It is OMRI certified?
Good point about the water! I have raspberries, and they’re ripening now… tried a handful yesterday and they were awful. Turns out it’s because it’s been raining practically nonstop for the last week here in Virginia. I hope the rest of the summer brings berries with actual flavor!
Another important step is to remove your old plants and let the runners replace them. My plants only make good strawberries for 2 years and there is a noticeable decline in the third year plants. If your plants are small and so are there strawberries it might be time for replacement. Also don’t bother with everbearing strawberries, too small and few berries.
I gave up on strawberries because chipmunks ate every last berry, and netting didn’t foil them. Do you or anyone else have anti-chipmunk advice? I’d love to try again, but not if those cute but greedy little buggers will eat my crop.
Thanks for this article, just what I was looking for. Now I know where I am going wrong. I garden on clay, this area of the UK is not called Clay Country for nothing!
I take off the runners and nurture them into healthy new plants each year. I have about three different varieties out in my patch. They grow lovely healthy green foliage, get covered in blossom start to set fruit and then – nothing………….. So this season I have some growing in a strawberry tower, some in a large container and some growing directly in the soil as an edging to my veggie patch. The theory is that the ones on the edge will have their fruit cascading over the stone wall surround.
I eat lots of bananas and the peels go into the compost but I will try putting a few peels directly around the plants.
Erica, I planted a few strawberry plants in my garden 2 years ago. They were going to have a wonderful little crop of berries this year – but just as soon as they started to turn any slight shade of almost red they were gobbled up by what I’m assuming were slugs and the bunny that lives in our yard (not a pet, but its made a happy home so I just use my fair share of cage wire to protect my veg).
The bunny I can keep out – the slugs are a different story. Any thoughts??
PS – I prefer to not use chemicals on my gardens, so natural/tree-hugger 😀 options are GREATLY preferred.
You can probably just sprinkle sluggo around the outside of your garden and it will help the problem a lot…
Lisa Cotter says
BEER. They are attracted to the yeast… climb in, get stupid drunk and drown. Use something shallow like an old jar lid or sink a mini pie tin into the soil then splash in about 1/4 inch depth of cheap beer.
Mary Ann Baclawski says
Crushed egg shells scattered around vulnerable plants will kill the slugs. I also grow my strawberries in a taller wood frame set on the ground. It doesn’t keep all the slugs out, but it keeps the number way down.
Kris M says
My hubby helped me make a cinder block raised bed for strawberries over the winter. We used soil from a pile beside one of our fields that was nice and rich with chicken manure. Since it is the first year for the bed, I did some experimenting with companion planting since I wanted my plants to produce good roots this year.
The rather lifeless Ozark Beauty strawberry plants sprang back with a vengeance! The ones closest to my lettuces are huge. There are also a few stray violet plants mingled in the mix from where we moved the soil which have helped the size of the strawberry plants as well.
“I prefer to not use chemicals on my gardens”
So do I, as organic gardening provides intense, realistic flavors in your food, as well as higher vitamin and mineral content.
Tanya @ Lovely Greens says
I’m trying two new strawberry cultivars this year – Malling Opal and Marshmello. Malling Opal is my first experiment with an everbearer and I’m keen to see if they live up to their reputation of producing fruit for most of the summer. No ripe berries on any of my plants yet but it wont be long!
I am on the west coast of Florida. STrawberry season begins in the fall I’m told. We have tons of sun but I don’t have room on my rented property to plant strawberries. However a friend told me that I can plant strawberries in pots or strawberry planters. What can you tell me about this process? And which are the most flavorful berries to plant here. I will use many of them for jam and the rest to eat for breakfast with cereal.
For all with critter problems, I’ve battled raccoons, deer and birds here. I built a pvc frame, covered it with field fencing and bird netting. As long as we remember to shut it it works great. You can use whatever size material keeps out your target, hardware cloth should work for bunnies and chipmunks I would think.
Copper gives slugs and snails a “slightly uncomfortable sensation” according to the packaging on the copper tape we bought and installed a few weeks ago. You could try a copper barrier to discourage the slugs. It doesn’t kill them and you don’t have to deal with any slug corpses at the end of the day.
I completely agree. Our strawberries are in a well drained raised bed, in all day sun. The soil isn’t the best and it’s slightly under-watered. The plants have gone CRAZY this year. Just two days ago, I picked 109 berries. Most days I get 20-30. I never knew that one raised bed of strawberries could do this!
Bookmarking this post. I was going to start strawberries next year but I’d have to get compost brought in to get drainage up to par. BIL offered to loan me his trailer to haul compost from the next town over’s free compost heap, so the strawberry patch is getting first priority!
Great timing! We just put together a mini raised bed for our strawberries yesterday 🙂
Audrey manning says
Great info on strawberries