It's Time to Plant Your Small Strawberry Fields for Winter

January 17, 1987|ROBERT SMAUS | Smaus is an associate editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Strawberries are one of winter's genuine bargains. One large building supply chain has my favorite variety, Sequoia, advertised this weekend for $1.44 a dozen, or exactly 12 cents per plant--the makings of a perfect weekend project, even if it is chilly outdoors.

The reason they can sell them for so little is that strawberries, like roses and fruit trees, can be sold bare root. What you'll find in the nursery section won't be plants growing in little pots but bare root plants packaged in a plastic bag. To boot, this is the best way to plant them, if you do so carefully.

Strawberries are an important agricultural crop in California--whenever you see a roadside field covered in plastic sheeting, you're looking at a strawberry planting, and these fields are planted with bare-root plants.

They're also planted in very elaborate raised beds and in sandy soil, two cultivating hints not to be ignored.

You can easily satisfy the demands of strawberries--for good drainage and ample water--in a container filled with a good potting soil. But you would need a very large one, or several, to grow enough to harvest a decent crop. Consider growing them in the ground if you have a sunny spot in the garden.

Make Clay Soil Better

You can't, however, grow them in a heavy clay soil on flat ground; you must improve it. So while you're at the nursery, buy a couple bags of soil amendment (planting mix), which also happens to be on sale this weekend at some nurseries and building supply stores. And pick up a few 2-by-6-inch boards. Three six-footers ought to do it.

With all this, you are going to make a little raised bed, similar to what the commercial growers use but only six feet long by three feet wide. Spade up the soil and mix in the amendments until you have a fluffy soil that looks like potting mix. Since we're talking about a fairly small area, I'd get down on my knees and do the final mixing with my hands, partly because it's fun and partly because it guarantees that there are no dirt clods left. The soil should be prepared to a depth of about a foot.

Once you have added all this soil amendment, the level of the soil is going to be higher, so nail the 2-by-6-inch boards together and enclose the raised bed, burying about two inches of the boards so the water won't run under them. Now level off the soil and rake out any clods you may have missed and stand back to admire your handiwork.

What you have is a little strawberry factory. It is raised above the ground so it drains excess water quickly and allows air into the soil for the shallow strawberry roots. Now to plant it.

Set Plants Carefully

The strawberries should be spaced about a foot apart, so you need 18 plants (the outermost plants will only be six inches from the sides of the raised bed). But buy two dozen so you can pick and choose the best plants.

Strawberry plants must not be planted too deep, and care is again required. Look at the plants and note the little crown from which the leaves sprout--it is even shaped like a crown. This must be above the soil with just the base touching the soil but no roots showing. Dig a hole, untangle the roots a little and plant, firming down the soil. I usually end up planting a few several times, trying to get them at just the right level.

Strawberries need lots of water once they get going, and fertilizing with a liquid fertilizer in a watering can about once a month.

Planted now, the berries will probably start bearing fruit in late March and will continue through June. Each plant will make many little plantlets called runners. These should be cut off during the fruiting period. You can let these runners develop after June if you want to grow your own plants for next year, but they will need to be dug and cut back and refrigerated, and at $1.44 a dozen, it just doesn't figure.

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