By Michelle Wallace
Every year I look forward to picking strawberries with my kids. Fresh, ripe, juicy sweet strawberries can not be beat. The first time I took my daughter picking, I felt that the farmer should have weighed her before we began. I am sure she gained a half a pound from start to finish.
You may be interested to know a little bit about what is involved in growing strawberries. Commercial strawberry producers in North Carolina primarily grow two different varieties of strawberries, Chandler and Camarosa. These are different than the varieties of strawberries grown by homeowners primarily because these varieties are annual (live one season) as opposed to perennial strawberries (which come back ever year). The reason most strawberry farmers raise annual strawberries instead of perennial strawberries is primarily due to the quantity, quality and consistency of fruit, as well as disease management of the field.
There is a lot of work involved in producing strawberries. This work begins literally right after the strawberry harvest is over. In July, farmers remove the plastic raised bed covers, drip irrigation pipes, and the picked over strawberry plants. Soil preparation begins for next year’s crop. By August, the soil is tilled. New raised beds are created and covered with drip irrigation pipes and black plastic. The raised beds are fumigated to sterilize the soil and prevent disease from destroying the crop. By early October, the new strawberry starter plants are planted. At this time, the strawberries must be regularly scouted for insects like spider mites and for disease. The first application of fertilizer is administered to promote root development over the winter months. The next several months are devoted to monitoring growth and to frost protection. While strawberry plants are fairly hardy, our weather can throw a curve ball in the growing season. Some years, temperatures can get as warm as 70 degrees in January and a couple days later drop down to close to freezing. Warm temperatures can cause strawberries to develop and mature too soon. Early flowering is not desirable since we are plagued with late season frosts. In addition, most strawberry growers want to ensure a long picking season and want the crown development of the plants to be staggered so that the berries do not develop and ripen all at once. Frost protection can involve the use of overhead irrigation and or row covers. Overhead irrigation for frost protection is applied only when the dew point at the flower bud is just above freezing. Irrigation must persist as long as the temperatures are at or lower than freezing. The evaporative cooling process keeps the temperature of the plants above freezing and ensures that the flower buds will survive. Row covers can also be used for frost protection. Row covers are laid over the raised beds and secured into place. Once temperatures are above freezing, they must be removed to ensure pollination. This can translate into a lot of labor since row covers may need to be placed and removed several times over the course of a week. By March, strawberry fields must be fertilized again. Scouting for insects and diseases is critical and bi-weekly plant tissue analysis samples are submitted to the NCDA (North Carolina Department of Agriculture) to ensure a successful fertigation* schedule for the plants. By mid April the first edible berries begin to appear – almost a whole year after they were first planted. The next couple of months are Strawberry Picking Season.
While the Triangle region is growing by leaps and bounds you may be surprised to discover that there are several local farms that grow strawberries. All of these farms are pick your own operations and several of them offer pre-picked strawberries for those of you who are in a hurry. For those of you who have the time, this is a great outdoor family outing. There is nothing like freshly picked locally grown strawberries. This year, take some time to pick some berries, eat some berries, make strawberry pies, ice-cream, or jam. Most of all make some happy family memories and traditions that you will cherish over the years.
For information about the local strawberry growers in your region contact the Durham County Master Gardeners at 919-560-0528 or search http://www.ncagr.com/markets/commodit/horticul/strawber/ .
*(According to Wikipedia) Fertigation is the application of fertilizers, soil amendments, or other water soluble products through an irrigation system.