By Heather Kirk-Ballard
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
It’s strawberry planting time! Louisiana has a long history of strawberries dating back to the 1800s, and business really began to boom in the early 1900s. According to the LSU AgCenter’s latest data, the Louisiana strawberry industry has a gross farm value of $8.4 million.
Tangipahoa Parish is still the leading strawberry-producing parish, growing 75% of the total acres in Louisiana and accounting for 79% of the state’s total gross farm value. Louisiana strawberries can be found in grocery stores, farmers markets and roadside stands as early as November, December and January.
Early fall is the time to plant strawberries. Home gardeners can successfully grow strawberries with even a small area, plenty of sun and some TLC.
Strawberry plants are typically sold in local garden centers as bare-root plants, but they also can be found as transplants. Plants can be purchased online, too.
In Louisiana, we need to plant short-day or day-neutral strawberry varieties. Short-day plants begin to produce flowers when the days shorten during fall and winter. They initiate flower buds when there is 14 hours of daylight per day or less. Day neutral means day length doesn’t affect flower production. These strawberries will blossom and set fruit no matter how long or short the days are.
If ordering plants online, be sure to choose the right kind of varieties. Local garden centers carry short-day and day-neutral varieties that are best for Louisiana. Some examples are Camarosa, Camino Real, Chandler, Florida Brilliance, Sweet Sensation and Yakhima.
Strawberries are heavy feeders, so it is best to incorporate one of the following: 1.5 pounds of 8-24-24, 2 pounds of 13-13-13 or 3 pounds of 8-8-8 per 100 square feet of bed space before planting. Side-dress (add a nitrogen boost) with calcium nitrate at 1/2 pound per 100 square feet in early February and again in March. Soluble liquid fertilizers also can be used on a seven-to-14-day basis to provide extra nutrients in early spring.
Home gardeners will be most successful in raised beds and containers in a potting soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5. If you plant into the ground, the rows need to be hipped up 8 to 12 inches because good drainage is imperative for the best berry production. Strawberries must be protected from sitting in moisture as much as possible.
Plant strawberries so that the crown of the plant sits above the soil. Space plants 12 to 18 inches apart to allow proper air movement and to help reduce disease.
Perhaps one of the most important — if not the most important — practices to follow when growing strawberries is to be sure to mulch heavily around the plants with pine straw or seed-free straw. This again protects fruit from rotting on the ground. In commercial production, plastic mulches are typically used, and they do an excellent job of suppressing weeds, sustaining soil temperatures, preventing fruit from rotting and keeping rain from splashing onto plants.
It is crucial to water plants thoroughly for the first couple of weeks after planting. However, be careful to water only at the soil line. Try to avoid getting water on the leaves and crown as much as possible. As a rule of thumb with strawberries, avoid watering overhead in the late afternoon or evening. Drip irrigation is the best solution.
Once planted, strawberries will generally lose their initial leaves; this is nothing to be concerned with. New foliage will grow from the crown, and the plant will grow vegetatively and produce additional crowns before flower production. Be sure to remove runners to help plants conserve energy for crown production and later plants that are more productive.
Strawberry flowers and fruit will need to be protected when temperatures approach 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Reemay cloth can be used in low temperatures to protect flowers from frost. Leaves will survive to the mid-teens, but flowers must be protected.
It takes four to six weeks for a flower bloom to produce ripe fruit, so harvesting can potentially begin as soon as a month after planting and will continue into early summer. Once fruit starts to ripen, pick fruit frequently.
Mites, slugs and snails are the major pest problems on strawberries. For slugs and snails, use iron phosphate baits to help reduce populations. For mites, use horticultural soaps or oils.
Fungal diseases and rot are a common problem in strawberries. Home growers can help lower the incidence of disease by ensuring proper drainage, protecting berries from sitting directly on the soil, avoiding watering leaves and crowns and using a rotation of fungicides such as copper, daconil and captan. Be sure to use fungicides labeled for use on strawberries and follow label instructions.
Strawberries are delicious and packed with vitamins, fiber and high levels of antioxidants. They can be a true labor of love, but if you enjoy a good challenge, the work is worth the reward.