Strawberries are a fruit most Michigan homeowners can grow. Strawberries are not only luscious and juicy sweet but they are healthy foods. A cup of strawberries has only 45 calories and no fat and all of the day’s requirement for Vitamin C. They are packed with antioxidants and other vitamins also. They are easy to prepare for fresh use and the homeowner has a variety of ways to store excess fruit.
In Michigan, zones 4-7, strawberries can be grown as perennial plants and you will get several years of strawberries from one planting. In very cold areas strawberries are best grown as annual plants.
In this article growing strawberries in Michigan is discussed but a good source of advice, especially on choosing what varieties to grow, will be your County Extension office.
How many plants?
If you want the strawberries for fresh use and just a little to freeze or share, 25 plants should be plenty for a small family. If you want lots of berries to make jam or freeze, you may want to start with 50 plants. You will be placing the plants about a foot apart so for 25 plants you will need rows about 2 foot wide and 25 foot long or two rows 12 foot by 2 foot etc. If you find you want more plants you can add more later.
Making the Bed
Preparation of the beds is the same for most areas of the Michigan. While you can grow strawberries in fancy strawberry barrels and pyramidal beds, strawberries are best grown right in the garden if you have the room. You’ll get more berries and have fewer problems when grown in raised rows in the garden.
Choose an area in full sun, where no strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants or potatoes have grown for the last four years. All of these plants share the same soil born diseases and insect problems. Don’t choose a wet area or a low spot that will collect cold and frost. You will need a spot close to water so you can irrigate if it gets dry.
Strawberries like sandy well drained soil. They will grow in other soils but the soil must be well draining, wet areas cause the roots of strawberries to rot. Work the soil up well, making sure you have removed all sod pieces. If you could work up the soil in the fall and again before planting it would also be helpful.
An alternative method to tilling up soil would be to build a raised bed with timbers about a foot high. This method also works great where the garden soil is heavy clay or poorly draining.
Before planting work some fertilizer into the bed, follow label directions for the amount to use. You can use a fertilizer designed for strawberries or a slow release 10-10-10 garden fertilizer.
Strawberries are listed in catalogs as June bearing, everbearing, or short day varieties. June or spring bearers have the heaviest crops and are the varieties the gardeners in zones 4-6 can plant which will remain as perennials for several years. Everbearers bear small crops sporadically throughout the year and are also grown by gardeners in zones 4-6. They can be treated as annuals and replanted each year. Short day varieties are not good for Michigan.
Some good June bearers for the north are Earliglow, Sparkle, Redchief, and Allstar. Some good everbearing varieties are Ozark Beauty, Quinault, Gem, and also Tribute and Tristar- which are day neutral.
You will either get your strawberries as dormant bare root plants or as potted plants. Keep the dormant plants in a cool moist place until ready to plant. Don’t allow the roots to dry out but don’t leave them soaking in water. Wrap them in moist paper or peat moss. Buy only certified disease free plants.
In Michigan plant strawberries just before your last frost is expected. Light frost will not hurt the leaves. Place your plants about a foot apart in the row. It is very important to plant the strawberries at just the right depth. The soil level should cover the roots and be just at the base of the crown, the spot where all the new leaves sprout from in the center of the plant. Water well after planting.
Mulches and Row Covers
Mulching strawberries is highly recommended as dealing with weeds is one of the hardest parts of growing strawberries. Plastic mulch is good for cold areas as it helps warm the soil. Red plastic mulch is sold now and it is said to increase the yield and size of strawberries. When you use plastic mulch you lay it down on the soil first, then you cut holes in it to plant.
Straw, wood chips, shredded leaves, or other organic mulches can also be used around plants and in the rows to keep down weeds.
The work is hardest for those of you who want to establish a perennial patch of strawberries using June or everbearing varieties. You must take all the flowers off the June bearers the first year and off the everbearers until July. Heartbreaking isn’t it? The plants will develop strong roots and will put out runners to fill up your rows. Keep the rows about 2 foot apart and thin plants so they are about 6 inches apart in the rows.
Once the temperatures go below 20 degrees you will need to cover your plants with several inches of straw. You will remove the mulch in early spring, when plants start growing.
In the second year you can pick all the berries you want. After the June bearing berries have finished, you will mow or clip all the leaves off to just above the crown or growing point and fertilize with a slow release fertilizer. Water well after trimming. The plants will re-grow and put out runners which you can allow to fill in any bare areas. This will need to be repeated each year for 4-5 years before you will rip it all out and start over. Everbearers will be trimmed after frost kills them. Do not fertilize then.
For those of you who are treating the everbearing strawberries as annual plants the chores are much simpler. Just allow the plants to grow, bear fruit and then rip them out. Try to rotate the area where you plant your strawberries each year.
For good berry production the plants must have adequate moisture, and must be watered when it is dry. If homeowners develop disease problems it is best to rip out the bed and start again in a new area.
Keep ripe berries picked often. This keeps the plant producing longer. Strawberries do not ripen after they are picked so pick the red ones! Don’t wash berries until you are ready to use them and store in a refrigerator.