Garden Strawberry Plants – How to Plant and Maintain Bare-root Plants
Strawberry plants are most well known for their runners, properly known as stolons. While the strawberry fruits are key to reproduction, the plant itself will asexually reproduce by sending out runners and creating whole new strawberry plants, similar to winter squash and sweet potatoes. This asexual reproduction is far easier and more reliable for propagating strawberry plants than sexual reproduction for many reasons, one of which being the ease of planting.
Runner plants are typically sold in one of two ways: as bare-root plants or as plugs. “Bare-root” means exactly what it says on the tin: the roots of the plant have no soil on them when they’re shipped. The bare-root plants are typically put into a dormant state before shipping to preserve the plants. “Plugs,” on the other hand, mean that the plant is packaged and shipped with soil around the roots, which also means that they are live, “active” plants. It’s typically a lot easier to handle and ship bare-root plants, which mean that they’re cheaper to buy as starts, so most people opt for them when starting out instead of plugs.
Even with the ease of bare-root plants, though, you still need to make sure to take care of them properly for them to thrive, both during and after planting.
Places to Plant
Strawberry plants, whether bare-root or plugs, are somewhat versatile in terms of where they like to grow. For greatest growth and yield, it’s recommended that they are planted in early spring after the last frost, one square foot apart from each other in an area with loamy, loose, slightly acidic soil that drains well and has access to full sun. In hotter climates, it may be better to plant them in the fall or early winter. However, they can be planted in slightly less than ideal conditions with as little as six hours of direct sun each day, as long as it’s properly watered and the area is kept free of weeds. The plants should be kept away from trees, as their root systems would be competing against the trees for nutrients and water.
Since strawberries don’t demand intensely specific growing conditions, there are many ways to plant them depending on desired use, available space, and other things. It’s simple enough to plant them directly into the ground in plots, but they can also be planted in raised garden beds, medium-sized pots/containers, hanging baskets, greenhouses, or indoors with a hydroponics system.
- Raised garden beds are suitable for locations where natural soil drainage and surface drainage aren’t ideal. The soil depth should be one foot or higher, as strawberries prefer having 10-12 inches of root zone, and the beds placed in full or near-full sun.
- Pots and hanging baskets are similar in function and requirements to raised garden beds, but more compact and portable. Potted strawberries can be moved indoors if needed, providing an excellent way to regulate plant temperature and overwintering, but trimming runners off is all but a requirement to make sure the plant has enough space.
- Greenhouses are ideal for growing regions that are too cold to naturally support strawberry plants, and can be useful for regulating a steady temperature and protecting the plants from natural pests. The greenhouse should be kept above 60 degrees F (15 degrees C), and the plants open to as much sunlight as possible while fruiting.
- A hydroponics system can allow for faster, cleaner harvests of strawberries, as well as getting rid of all soil pests and most airborne pests in an indoor system, but the initial setup of a hydroponics system is complicated and expensive, and regulating the nutrient solution of the system is more difficult than working with soil. It’s considered to be a more challenging way of growing plants of all kinds, not just strawberries.
Depending on the condition of your soil, you may need to mix fertilizer and/or compost into it before planting. A general rule of thumb I personally follow, though, is that the simpler your planting area, the better.
Anatomy of a Bare-root Strawberry Plant
Strawberry plants are going to look the same whether as bare-roots or plugs, because the only difference between the two is if they have soil around the roots or not. There are three main parts to the plant: the top/leaves, the crown, and the roots.
The top of the plant is where the leaves will emerge and grow after planting. When receiving bare-root plants, there may or may not be leaves on them, and if there are, they may either be brown and wilted or small and green– it just depends on storage conditions, shipping, and dormancy temperature from the provider. As long as there’s no mold or visible rot, they should be fine for planting.
The crown of the plant is the woody middle section where the leafy growth transitions into roots. It is the main part of the plant as a whole, and it is important to make sure it isn’t damaged or rotting. When planting, you want to make sure the top two-thirds of the crown is above ground, as it’s where new growth will occur. Planting the crown too low so that it’s covered with soil will make it rot, while planting the crown too high will expose the roots and dry them out before the plant becomes established.
The roots of the plant are, well, the roots of the plant. They should be long, lightly moist, and hair-like in appearance, and should be flexible yet strong while handling them. They can be pruned before planting if they seem excessively long to prevent “J-root,” where the roots can be accidentally looped upwards in a planting hole.
Make sure to identify where the crown is on each strawberry plant before planting them. It can be difficult to find it on smaller bare-root plants, especially if it’s all in various shades of brown, but the woody part should be distinguishable from the roots and the leaves by touch.
How to Plant Bare-root Strawberries
When you buy or order bare-root strawberry plants from somewhere like a nursery, they’re going to look like a tangled, ugly mess of roots and seemingly dead plant matter. Don’t worry, that’s what they’re supposed to look like, as they’re shipped as dormant plants. If you can’t plant them right away, you can store them in a cool environment like a cellar, garage or refrigerator for up to a week to keep them dormant. Make sure that the plants are loose (if they arrived tied up in a rubber band) and to keep the roots moist on a regular basis. Sort out any moldy or rotten plants before storing to prevent the whole batch from molding. It’s recommended that you plant them as soon as you get them, though, as it’s very easy for them to either dry out or rot while in storage.
Once you’re ready to plant:
- Gently pull apart the plants from the bundle without breaking any of the roots. This may take a while depending on how tangled the root ball is, but with enough patience they should all separate out. Spritzing the roots with water to moisten them may help them separate.
- If the roots seem a little dry, soak them for a few minutes to an hour in warm water. Make sure that you’re only soaking the roots and not anything else to prevent the rest of the plant from rotting. Adding diluted kelp or fish emulsion to the water gives the roots an extra nutrient boost when planting, but it’s entirely optional. Don’t soak the roots for more than two hours.
- Prepare your planting area(s). The soil should be nice and loose for planting. Dig 6-inch deep holes for each plant. If you’re planting in a plot or in a raised garden bed, plant them at least 12 inches apart from each other in 18 to 24-inch wide rows.
- Fan out the roots of each plant as you place them in the holes, and fill in the holes up to the crown of the plant. The crown should be mostly exposed above the soil.
- Lightly press the soil down around the plants and thoroughly water them in at ground level. You can give them a little bit of non-chemical fertilizer like fish emulsion to boost their initial growth, especially if the soil is lacking in nutrients, but it isn’t typically required.
- If planting early in colder temperatures, place a layer of mulch on top of the plants to retain heat and moisture. Remove the much once temperatures become suitable for normal growth.
When to Plant Bare-root Strawberries
Strawberries are primarily a spring through summer plant, meaning that you ought to plant them during early spring and let them grow throughout the summer. Depending on the variety, some strawberries may prefer to be planted as soon as the last frost passes, while others may prefer the early summer mark. In general, 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) to 80 degrees F (25 degrees C) is the ideal temperature to plant strawberries. Anything above 85 degrees F (30 degrees C) or below 30 degrees F (-1 degrees C) damages the plants.
The growing zone you’re in is the biggest factor in when to plant your strawberries, however. For northern climes, spring planting is best, while southern climes usually prefer autumn or even early winter planting. Here’s a growing zone chart for reference:
|USDA Plant Hardiness Zone||Plant Strawberries From:||Plant Strawberries Until:|
|Zone 3||Early May||Middle of May|
|Zone 4||Early May||Middle of May|
|Zone 5||Early March||Early May|
|Zone 6||Early April||Middle of April|
|Zone 7||December||Early April|
|Zone 8||December||Middle of March|
Maintaining Strawberry Plants
Once you have your plants in the ground, keep them sufficiently watered and look out for new signs of growth. Like most plants, general upkeep (weeding, getting rid of pests, etc.) of the place they’re planted in is crucial, especially for establishing their root systems the first year.
For all types of strawberries, it’s recommended to prune the first year’s flowers and runners to produce stronger, bigger berries the following year. With June-bearing varieties, you can skip pruning the runners. If you’re serious about making quality strawberries and don’t mind a bit of waiting, it’s best to prune the plants; otherwise, if you’re impatient and more of hobbyist gardener like me, just let them grow and enjoy your strawberries. They might come out a little misshapen sometimes, but they’ll still taste just as great as the perfect ones.
Bare-root strawberry starts are easy to obtain, prepare, and plant, and have a high success rate if you take care of them properly. My first strawberry plants, which I just planted earlier this year, grew beautifully even amongst the wacky spring and summer temperatures in my area and are currently thriving against all odds. Being a slight black thumb in an area that isn’t the friendliest towards domesticated plants, I had been worried that I’d kill about half of them before they’d get established, but almost all of them survived. Many people say that strawberries have picky requirements, and I’m sure some varieties do have stricter needs, but as long as you treat the plants with care and apply common sense while gardening, they should be just fine wherever you put them. Strawberries are a little more hardy than your average garden vegetable, after all.
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