Cultivating strawberry plants organically is a practice accessible to everyone that can yield great satisfaction. Strawberries are modestly sized but highly generous and productive plants. For this reason, with just a few careful interventions, it’s easy to obtain abundant and flavorful fruits. There are several varieties of strawberries, some of which are ideal for cultivation by home gardeners.
Let’s explore these varieties and their characteristics. In this article, we’ll also cover all the stages of cultivation, from transplanting to care, and even organic defense against pests and adversities.
Botanical Overview of Strawberry Plants
The strawberry plant (Fragaria) belongs to the Angiosperm division and the Rosaceae family.
Within the Fragaria genus, there are more than twenty species distributed worldwide. In our country, the Fragaria vesca, better known as the wild strawberry, is prevalent. This species, characterized by its small fruits, can be found both in the wild and in cultivation.
The species to which the widely cultivated large-fruited varieties belong is called Fragaria × ananassa. It’s a hybrid that formed by chance between the F. Virginiana and F. Chiloensis species. The former is native to the USA, and the latter to the Chilean coast of the Pacific. This crossbreeding led to the development of the current varieties.
A fundamental distinction among strawberry plants lies in the division between day-neutral varieties and everbearing varieties. They differ based on the flowering buds of the plant in response to the photoperiod. Day-neutral varieties produce flowers only upon vegetative awakening, thus bearing fruit in the spring. Everbearing varieties, on the other hand, continuously produce flowers throughout the vegetative period, resulting in fruiting at various times of the year.
The Strawberry Plant
The strawberry is a perennial plant that’s cultivated with an annual cycle. It doesn’t grow to large sizes. It’s equipped with runners, thin stems that creep along the ground, which develop new roots, then leaves, fruits, and flowers at the nodes. Reproducing strawberry plants on the ground is thus straightforward and occurs through the division of clusters and the extraction of runners at the nodes.
The root system is of the fasciculated type, consisting of primary and secondary roots. The roots spread well on the surface, covering a diameter of about 30 cm, and extend downwards to 15-20 cm.
Stem, Leaves, and Flowers of the Strawberry
The stem of strawberry plants is short. It’s a rhizome of 2-3 cm that becomes semi-woody over time.
The leaves, intensely green in color, have variable-length petioles (from 5 to 15 cm). They consist of three leaflets with toothed margins arranged in a fan shape.
The flowers are clustered at the end of long peduncles that extend from the plant’s main axis. Usually, they are hermaphroditic, meaning they possess both male organs (stamens, arranged around the receptacle) and female organs (pistils, inserted into the receptacle). At the base of the flower is the calyx, which, with its green sepals, covers the outer base of the corolla, consisting of white petals.
Pollination occurs in two ways: through the wind (anemophilous) and thanks to pollinating insects (entomophilous).
The strawberry, the one we love and seek, is actually considered a false fruit. Botanically, it’s called a sorosis and is formed from the enlargement of the receptacle. The true fruits of strawberry plants are the achenes, the ones we mistakenly consider as seeds. These are green-brownish and irregularly positioned on the surface of the false fruit.
A variable and distinctive characteristic of strawberries is their shape, which can be conical, conical-elongated, flattened, rounded, or trapezoidal.
Another distinctive feature of specific varieties is the color, ranging from vibrant red to orange.
Further distinguishing traits of strawberries that can guide our variety choice are size, pulp taste and texture, aroma, and post-harvest resistance.
Choosing the Right Varieties
To cultivate strawberries, a fundamental choice is to select the variety that best suits our soil and climate conditions. Not all varieties behave the same way and adapt to the climate of our area.
For instance, everbearing varieties require temperature fluctuations of at least 5-8 °C between day and night. This temperature fluctuation promotes reflowering. These varieties are therefore better suited for hill and mountain regions, between 500 and 1,500 m.
Everbearing varieties bear fruit in multiple periods of the year, usually from June to November. This is why they’re among the most loved by home garden enthusiasts.
Let’s see which varieties are most readily available on the market, distinguishing between one-time fruiting and everbearing plants.
One-Time Fruiting Strawberry Varieties
- Alba: An early and productive variety that bears fruit at the beginning of spring. The fruit is conical in shape and light red in color, with a pleasant sweet taste. This variety is highly robust and vigorous, and is better suited for cultivation in northern regions.
- Gemma: A variety that ensures moderate production. It’s less early compared to the previous one, as it fruits from May onwards. The fruits are medium-sized and intensely red. This variety is very hardy and vigorous, suitable for all latitudes.
- Maya: A medium-early variety, with abundant productivity. The fruits are large and bright red. This variety is moderately hardy and vigorous, better suited for central and northern regions.
Everbearing Strawberry Varieties
- Anabelle: A highly productive variety, with a strong tendency to reflower. The fruit is medium-sized, conical-rounded in shape, intense red in color, and has an excellent taste.
It’s a moderately vigorous and hardy variety, suitable for cultivation in all hilly and mountainous areas of the country.
- Anais: A variety with characteristics similar to the previous one, but with smaller fruits.
- Diamante: A variety with moderate productivity, but very large fruits. It results in a very vigorous plant, but with limited hardiness, making it less suitable for cultivation at high altitudes.
Choosing Strawberry Plants at the Nursery
If you’re about to cultivate strawberries for the first time and you don’t have plants for propagation through division, you’ll need to turn to a specialized nursery. Look for a reputable one. There, you’ll find different types of strawberry plants. These are usually sold as:
- In pots
Cold-stored strawberry plants are propagated in the nursery during the winter, cleaned of leaves, and stored in nylon bags in special refrigerated cells. The temperature here is constant, at about 0°C.
These preserved plants enter a state of vegetative rest and can be thawed for sale and transplanting at any time of the year. They have a higher cost but offer better yields, both in terms of earliness and productivity.
Fresh plants are similar to the previous ones. They are taken from the nursery with bare roots and bundled for planting. This should be done quickly (immediately after purchase) to avoid early wilting. If immediate transplantation is not possible, you can immerse the roots in water to keep them preserved for a few days.
A much simpler option is to buy plants grown in small plastic pots, which is ideal for home gardeners. These plants have a higher cost but establish themselves more easily, as they already have a well-formed root system.
Planting Time for Strawberries
The beginning of strawberry cultivation in open fields usually occurs in two periods. Either at the end of summer, from late July to September, or between late winter and early spring.
With summer planting, the plants establish their roots well, develop properly, and start producing in the following spring. Strawberries are plants that withstand cold climates, as long as they are in a sunny position. However, they suffer from prolonged cold periods, so they need proper protection from frost.
If planting takes place at the end of winter and you choose one-time fruiting varieties, full production will start in the following season.
For spring planting of everbearing plants, keep in mind that these plants start producing about 40-60 days after transplanting and repeat their production more or less continuously.
These guidelines are applicable for open field cultivation.
In professional settings, strawberry cultivation is often done in greenhouses or tunnels, with continuous planting times throughout the year.
For balcony container cultivation, on the other hand, the first planting is recommended at the beginning of spring.
Soil, Fertilization, and Plant Spacing
To cultivate healthy and flourishing strawberry plants, we need fertile, loamy soil.
Moreover, it’s important for the soil to have a good amount of organic matter.
Ideally, the soil should have excellent drainage, low salinity, and a pH between 5.5-7, which is slightly acidic to neutral.
Fertilization can be done by adding well-matured manure during soil preparation.
Alternatively, you can use the result obtained from home composting or worm humus. You can even raise these worms following the good practices of vermicomposting, as we have discussed before.
When planting the strawberry bed, after refining the soil, create beds about a meter wide and 25-30 cm high.
Usually, two rows of paired plants are planted on one bed, leaving a 40 cm space between the rows. Between plants on the same row, there should be a distance of 40 cm for vigorous-growing varieties and 25-30 cm for smaller-growing varieties.
The bed can also be narrower, with a single row of cultivation. This choice depends on the available land space.
Mulching and Irrigation
As strawberries persist on the ground for a long time, mulching is of fundamental importance. This helps limit the presence of weeds and the need for repeated weeding operations.
Mulching can be done using natural materials such as straw or jute. For practical and economic reasons, however, plastic or biodegradable film is often used in large-scale cultivation.
As for irrigation, keep in mind that strawberries have a fasciculated and extensively developed root system. This means frequent watering is necessary. When irrigating, take great care not to create waterlogged conditions, as these can lead to root asphyxiation and the development of fungal diseases. Ideally, set up a drip irrigation system, positioning the hoses beneath the mulch. During the initial establishment phase, strawberry plants require more frequent irrigation. However, it’s worth noting that in open field cultivation, water requirements are usually met by precipitation.
Biological Defense Against Pests and Diseases
Cultivating strawberries presents growers with a range of pests and diseases to address using organic methods.
Several insects affect the cultivar, among them aphids, spider mites, and certain lepidopterans like the cutworm. We’ve extensively discussed these pests in previous posts.
Another issue in strawberry cultivation can be gall-forming nematodes, which compromise the root system in tired soils. Against these soil parasites, you can intervene with agronomic techniques such as brassicaceae intercropping.
Among other adversities, gray mold, caused by Botrytis cinerea, is particularly feared, especially in spring and fall. To prevent it, you can use sodium bicarbonate. If the disease is present, more decisive action is needed, such as using powdered sulfur (if you need it, you can find it here).
Another issue in strawberry plant cultivation is gray mold, Botrytis cinerea. This problem occurs when there is high humidity. Flowers and fruits become covered with the typical mold and develop widespread rot. In open fields, preventive measures should be taken, such as maintaining the right planting density to promote ventilation and rapid drying of plants during rainfall. In this regard, it’s advisable to grow strawberries in single rows rather than paired ones. To prevent gray mold, the soil should drain well, and excessive fertilization should be avoided.
If an attack is already underway, quickly removing the affected fruits is recommended.
- Nutrients: “Dietary Strawberries Improve Cardiometabolic Risks” – Highlights the potential cardioprotective benefits of consuming strawberries.
- WebMD Editorial Contributors: “Health Benefits of Strawberries: An Overview” – Provides a comprehensive overview of the various health benefits associated with strawberry consumption.
- School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences Wellcome Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine: “Strawberries as a Functional Food” – Delves into the various health-promoting properties of strawberries, supported by scientific evidence.
- Food Frontiers: “Strawberry bioactive compounds and human health: The exciting story of an unbelievable bet” – Discusses the various bioactive compounds found in strawberries and their potential health benefits.