Spring Strawberries Start in the Fall

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3 strawberries in hand

It may sound odd, but as summer ends and fall begins in North Carolina, so does the start of our spring strawberry crop. Strawberries are a NC staple with numerous u-pick operations accessible across the state. However, many residents may not be aware that these early spring traditions of fresh picked strawberries begin with planting in late September into early October.

As a cool season fruit, strawberries grow best when temperatures our mild and insect and disease populations are at their lowest. The majority of North Carolina’s commercial strawberry crop is grown using an annual plastic mulch and drip irrigation system that helps to moderate soil temperature and conserve soil moisture. This is one of the reasons North Carolina is the third largest fresh market strawberry producer in the country, with the industry almost entirely based on small-to medium-size family farms, selling at U-pick and ready-pick roadside stands and in farmers markets in nearly all 100 counties.

rows of strawberries in a greenhouse

Research stations across the state are assessing strawberry production in high tunnels. Research on the economics of this production method is forthcoming..Photo by Becky Kirkland

North Carolina strawberry growers often grow June bearing Chandler and Camarosa strawberry varieties that were originally developed in California. These varieties our adaptable to our climate and produce a single crop of berries with fewer daylight hours (June bearing) that we experience during cooler months. Everbearing and Day neutral strawberry varieties produce flowers in spring as well, but also produce fruit into summer and fall; however, these varieties are poorly adapted to our climate and typically are avoided.

Home gardeners can plant strawberries in their own gardens, but now is the time to start looking for plants. Variety choice may be limited during the fall so look for June bearing varieties like Chandler, Camarosa, or Sweet Charlie. Plants may come as plugs (plants with soil and roots), bareroot (no soil, only roots), or cut-offs (bareroot plants with foliage cut off). Plugs are the easiest for home gardeners to plant and can be treated like most other transplants.

strawberry plug transplant

Transplant plugs into well-prepared garden soil, paying careful attention to ensure the crown of the plant (the center of plant where the leaves grow out of) if set just above the soil surface. If you bury the crown too deep, plants become stunted and will produce little fruit. Plants should be spaced 12-18” apart in rows 2-3’ wide. Apply four pounds of a complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or 8-8-8 per 100 foot of row, 2-3 weeks ahead of planting. Water plants in well following setting and apply additional sidedress nitrogen fertilizer in late January to early February. Plants should retain a dark green color as they grow. Plants are hardy to temperatures below freezing but flowers and fruit will be damaged by hard freeze events. Light weight floating row covers can be used to protect fruit during freeze events, assuming they are applied several hours before expected freezing temperatures. Row covers should be removed during warm days, as temperatures can rise quickly underneath.

Provide plants with adequate irrigation and pay special attention to weed control. Strawberries do not tolerate competition from weeds or heavy cultivation around roots. Hand weeding is your best option to maximize growth. Look for strawberry buds to begin swelling in March into April. As warm weather increases into May, strawberries will begin to send out runners, signaling the end of the production season. In June, remove the plants from the garden to decrease the chance of retaining disease and insect pests for future crops.

If you would like to learn more about growing strawberries in the home garden then review the NC State Extension Garden strawberry note. You can also contact Daniel Simpson at 252-745-4121 or daniel_simpson@ncsu.edu for additional information.