“My strawberries were awesome until the neighbor’s chickens got into my bed and scratched them up. Since then the berries are really small and hardly worth picking. Do I need to buy new plants or will pumping up the soil be enough to bring them back to their formal glory? I am including a picture of the crop I used to get and now I can barely fill up a cereal bowl when I pick.” Question from Sylvia of Belle Plaine, Minnesota
Answer: It sounds like the chickens caused your strawberries a lot of stress, but plant age may also be an issue. Many gardeners don’t know that strawberries are a three-year crop. The parent plants only produce well for three years before declining. In the second year, it is often good to nurture one good runner from each parent plant as a replacement. Then in the third year, the parent plants should be removed. It is the cycle for keeping strawberry patches producing at no additional cost.
Nurturing the soil will certainly boost growth as will fertilization, but old strawberry plants are not revivable. To learn everything that you need to know about making the most of strawberry plants, please reach the articles below and watch the video. Oh, and some chicken wire will help keep feathered beasts from scratching them up!
“What do you do with strawberry plants in the winter?” Question from Jacklyn or Portland, Oregon
Answer: In mild areas like yours, strawberries (Fragaria spp., USDA Zones 4-9) are very hardy, so no special overwintering measures need to be taken. You can, however, clean them up and thin clumps that are over 3 years of age to encourage strong fruiting. Central plants that are three or more years old start to produce less and less fruit. If you replace the main plants with one of the plant’s newer offshoots, you will get more strawberries the following year.
Start by weeding around your strawberry plants. You can also protect them with light straw or leaf mulch around the base of the plants. If you have older strawberries that need to be thinned and replaced, remove the central plant, and plant in its place one of the larger offshoots that have rooted. Fertilize your new strawberry plants with an all-purpose slow-release fertilizer to encourage good rooting and growth through fall and again late winter. Feed once more in early to mid-spring.
From there, I encourage you to watch our video about everything that you need to know about growing strawberries.
“Do blueberries and strawberries need to be fertilized?” Question from Melanie of Holton, Michigan
Answer: Absolutely! Fertilization will encourage better growth, flowering, and fruit set. Each berry type has different needs when it comes to fertilizer.
Blueberries grow best in more acid soils (pH between 4.5 and 5.5) and require a specialty fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants and/or berries. I generally fertilize in spring with a continuous-release fertilizer, but how you fertilize will depend on the product you choose. Follow the manufacturer’s application recommendations. There are many types of blueberry shrubs. To learn more, watch our video all about choosing and growing blueberries.
Strawberries like soils with a more neutral pH, and are less fussy. To encourage berry production, choose a specialty fertilizer formulated for strawberries or berries. There are many on the market. If your strawberries are June-bearing then I recommend fertilizing them in early spring and again later in the season, depending on what fertilizer you choose. If your strawberries are everbearing, then I would fertilize them with a continuous-release fertilizer in spring as well as a water-soluble fertilizer that will encourage them to produce berries through summer. For more information about growing strawberries watch this video.
“What would be a good fruit to try and grow in a cold climate?” Question from Chelsea of Alpena, Michigan
Answer: Lots of classic garden berries are very hardy and grow beautifully up north. Blackberries, blueberries, currants, gooseberries, strawberries, and raspberries are among them. If you are new to berry planting, I would start with lowbush blueberries because they are quick to set fruit, easy to maintain, and very hardy.
Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) grow particularly well up north and are able to withstand climates far into Canada. Choose compact lowbush varieties that are easy to maintain. Two classics that are short, heavy-bearing, and flavorful are ‘Northblue‘ and ‘Northcountry‘. These would look right at home along the edge of a sunny patio or even in containers. Speaking of container berries, the new designer lowbush blueberries in the Bushel and Berry® Series are also excellent varieties to try. (In fact, all of there berries are quite hardy and low-care). Of these, I think Blueberry Glaze® is especially beautiful because of its tidy, boxwood-like habit and tasty berries.
Alpena, Michigan is blueberry country, so you should not have trouble growing them, but you should still know the basics. Plant your berries in full to partial sun. The key to happy blueberries is getting their soil right; they like well-drained, acid soils with a pH between 4.5 and 5.5. When soils are too alkaline (have a higher pH) blueberry plants cannot access necessary nutrients, and their leaves start to turn yellow. To keep this from happening, amend the soil with Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss at planting time and feed with a fertilizer formulated for acid-loving crops, like blueberries. Water your berries if rain has been infrequent and the soil starts to become dry. If you start with robust, good-sized plants this spring you will have berries by summer.
If you are interested in growing other berries on a small-scale, read our article about the best fruits for container gardening. If you are interested in growing strawberries, watch the video below.
“What are the best strawberry varieties for Texas? I really would like to enjoy them year-round, and I have the ability to grow them in a raised bed that can easily be covered.” Question from Deb or Alvarado, Texas
Answer: Great timing! I just planted 25 strawberries in my own Delaware garden, so strawberries are on my mind. There are two types of strawberries, June-bearing types that produce once a year, and everbearing types that produce one big crop in late spring and then keep yielding additional berries through the season. It sounds like you want the latter. Additionally, some strawberries are better adapted to warmer zones like yours. Three everbearing recommendations for southern gardens like yours include ‘Tribute‘ (medium-fruited, disease-resistant), ‘San Andreas’ (extra-large fruited, heat-tolerant), and ‘Seascape‘ (medium-fruited, disease-resistant). There are many more, but these three are very good choices that are commonly available.
Strawberries grow best in soil that is well-drained, moisture-retentive, light, and high in organic matter. A soil with a slightly acid pH, between 5.5 to 6.5, is ideal. Amending with Black Gold Garden Soil, Peat Moss, or Compost Blend will boost your raised bed soil for strawberry growing. For further growing information and planting guidelines, please watch the video below.
You don’t need a lot of space to grow your own fresh fruit. Flowers, vegetables, and herbs are what we most commonly think of to grow in pots, but there are plenty of fruits you can grow in containers as well! The best fruits for container gardening make nice specimen plants for porch and patio and are perfect for families with little ones.
Why Grow In Pots?
Not everyone has an abundance of space to grow a garden, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow fruit. Container fruit gardens can produce an abundance of fruit on just a balcony, patio, or deck, as long as you choose the right plants for container growing. These are fruit varieties that have been bred for small-space growing and are perfectly suited for pots. If you plant several fruits that bear at different times in the season, it will allow you to enjoy a prolific yield of tasty fruit all summer long. The best fruits for organic gardening are common fruits that everyone enjoys.
Strawberries (Fragaria hybrids, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-10) are one of the easiest plants to grow in containers, and varieties can be found for almost every hardiness zone. Some just bear fruit around June (June-bearing strawberries) while others are everbearing, which means that they produce one large yield in spring or early summer and then continue to fruit sporadically up to fall. Everbearers are better for containers because they continue to yield. (Click here to watch a video about how to choose and plant strawberries.)
The shallow roots of strawberries do best in a container with good drainage. They can be successfully grown in barrels, tiered planters, hanging baskets, and, of course, strawberry pots. The key is to avoid heat damage to the roots. Use an insulated pot or add straw to the top of the pot to ensure extra protection. One 6-inch container will hold one strawberry plant, and a large hanging basket will hold between 3 and 5 plants, but keep in mind that smaller containers will require daily water for fruiting success. Hanging baskets look lovely filled with flowers and berries and even better when the runners hang over the sides.
Strawberries are most commonly purchased as bare-root starts. When planting them, dig a hole large enough to cover their roots, place the plants in, while making sure their crowns are just above the soil level, cover the roots, and lightly press the soil down. There should be a 1- to 2-inch space at the top of the pot for watering. When all the strawberries have been planted, water them. Continue to keep the pots evenly moist for good fruit set, especially in hot summer weather.
Strawberry plants will stop producing after three years or so and will need to be replaced. It’s good practice to plant the runners in the soil in between the established plants so they can take over when the mother plants stop producing.
Plant blueberries in thick, weatherproof ceramic pots (click here to read more about the best weatherproof pots), and make sure they are at least two to three times the size of the shrub’s root ball. Add a mulch of coarse, decorative peat moss to help the pots retain moisture. Keep them in full to partial sun. In more northern climates, full sun is optimal, but in areas with hotter summers, partial sun is best. Protect them from the hot sun of the early afternoon. Every few years, change out the soil and prune the roots to keep them healthy and happy. If necessary, upgrade the pot.
Raspberries and Blackberries
Generally, you shouldn’t grow raspberries or blackberries (Rubus species and hybrids) in containers because they need a lot of room to spread and bramble. However, there are container varieties of each that are making waves! Also from Bushel and Berry, Raspberry Shortcake® raspberry and Baby Cakes® blackberry are dwarf, thornless varieties bred just for container growing. Raspberry Shortcake® reaches 2 to 3 feet, becomes full of large berries, and produces well throughout the season. Baby Cakes® blackberry reaches 3 to 4 feet and often produces two crops of berries in a season. Occasional pruning is recommended for both shrubs, and supplemental support, such as caging, is beneficial for Baby Cakes®.
Even though they are small, you’ll still want a fairly large 18- to 24-inch container. Plant them in Black Gold Natural & Organic Ultra Coir, which is OMRI Listed for organic gardening and contains mycorrhizae, and supplement with a balanced fertilizer blend for small fruit in spring.
Dwarf Columnar Apples
Dwarf columnar apples (Malus domestica hybrids) are linear apple varieties grown on dwarfing rootstock, so they stay upright and small. Each grows like a vertical column and does not develop side branches. Instead, leafing, flowering, and fruiting spurs arise from the central trunk. While the trees only grow to 8 to 10 feet tall, they still develop full-sized fruit, so they’re an excellent solution for small-space gardens. The columnar trees in the Urban™ Series (Zones 4-8) come in several varieties that offer both disease-resistance and quality fruit. Two to try are Tasty Red™ Urban™ Apple, which has firm, sweet, juicy fruits, and Golden Treat™ Urban™ Apple with blushed golden apples that are lightly tart and sweet.
Truly dwarf figs can grow and produce well pots 24 inches or larger, and they are gorgeous plants to grow in the home garden. Figs are Mediterranean shrubs that prefer hot, dry conditions, and vary in hardiness. Choose a container with good drainage holes that drain well. Water your fig only when the top few inches of soil are dry.
Look for a self-fertile variety that produces the type of figs you like best: white or red-fleshed, green or brown-skinned, and sweet or earthy. My favorite variety is the somewhat compact (6 to 10 feet) ‘Celeste’ sugar fig (Ficus carica ‘Celeste’ (aka. ‘Celestial’)), which survives in Zones 6-9 and has small, sweet, purple-brown figs with white flesh. Newer, truly dwarf figs, such as the sweet-fruited Little Miss Figgy™ (Zones 7 -11), reach just 4 to 6 feet and make excellent edible specimen plants.
Pruning figs is essential to maintain a compact size. They can be pruned back hard to 2 to 3 feet in late winter if you require a more compact plant. Be sure to remove any small or inward-facing branches. Pruning can also encourage better fruit production. (Click here to learn more about growing figs.)
Meyer lemons ( Citrus × meyeri, Zones 9-11) have a distinctly sweet taste, unlike other lemons. Like most citrus, they are warm-climate trees, needing full sun and warm temperatures to thrive. In cooler climates, Meyer lemons can be planted near buildings for warmth, protected from frost over winter, or moved inside during the colder months and brought back outside as the weather warms up in the spring. Many gardeners in cooler climates find it’s worth the effort for homegrown lemons! (Click here to learn more about growing citrus indoors.)
For a tree that’s at least a couple of years old, choose a 5- to 10-gallon pot that’s at least 18 inches high with excellent drainage. Do not use a self-watering pot. Instead, pick a pot with drainage holes that flow freely to avoid overwatering. For these trees, I recommend Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix for planting, and good fertilizer formulated just for citrus. Regular fertilization makes all the difference in encouraging good growth and fruiting.
Prune off overgrown or crossing branches as they arise. And at fruiting time, thin clusters of fruit to one or two when the lemons are marble-sized.
Potted fruits are great for kids and homeowners that enjoy growing their own food. Start small with strawberries, and you’ll be hooked.
“Are there any companion plants to help strawberries grow and produce better? Or to keep bugs away from them?” Question from Amber of West Plains, Missouri
Answer: The true effectiveness of companion plants to ward off pests is argued. That’s because insect pests can detect their host plants from great distances, and/or they overwinter near host plants from year to year. So, if your strawberries are not covered with a deterring companion plant, there is a good chance they will not be protected. Either way, there are some strong-smelling plants that may be helpful, while also bringing herbal and floral benefits to your strawberry patch and garden. Just be sure that you don’t plant tall plants too close to your strawberries. You do not want them competing for sunlight! And, don’t forget to amend your beds with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, which is OMRI Listed for organic gardening.
Marigolds: Plant small French marigold varieties around your strawberries–the prettier the better.
Basil: I like mini bush basil. Plant them alongside your strawberries and harvest as needed. The two even taste great together.
Rosemary: Shorter or trailing rosemaries may also provide some benefit.
Sage: The strong leaves of sage ward off certain insects and may benefit your strawberries.
Thyme: Most any thyme variety would be the perfect complement to your strawberries. I would recommend lemon thyme, which is believed to deter more insect pests.
Sometimes old-time gardening advice is the best advice. When I searched for the most complete tips for growing the best strawberries (Fragaria x ananassa), I eventually turned to two classic gardening books, How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method (J.I. Rodale, 1961) and the Cyclopedia of Horticulture (L.H. Bailey, 1902). Both offered a wealth of information on strawberry growing. In fact, my new strawberry patch is already producing good fruit!
Preparing Strawberry Beds
When preparing my beds for my strawberries, I took Rodale and Bailey’s advice and chose a large space, which I amended and mounded so the ground would be rich and light while offering superb drainage. According to Rodale, “Strawberries need rich, moisture-retentive but light soil in a warm position.” He suggested planting them on a South-facing slope, so I provided the next best thing by creating a mounded bed in full sun. This year I amended with Black Gold Garden Soil, which feeds plants for up to 6 months, and topped the beds off with a layer of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend. In the fall I will add a little fertilizer formulated for fruit and berries.
My mounded strawberry beds were raised to a height of 6 inches to ensure excellent drainage. Then I top dressed with a little seed-free hay to make sure any developing strawberries would not rot on the moist ground. I plan to add some hay or light mulch once again in the fall to keep plants protected through winter and in spring. Strawberry plants can be hit by spring frosts, so it pays to protect them for the season.
Spacing strawberries properly is important because better spacing will ensure larger berries. As L.H. Bailey put it, ” For the very finest berries, each plant is allowed a space or hill by itself.” Truly, cramming strawberry plants together will yield smaller berries, so for each of my plants I allotted an 18″ x 18″ space around each. This has proven to be ideal. My plants are already sending out new shoots and producing sizable berries.
Keeping berries well irrigated is also essential for good crops. I make sure the soil is slightly moist to a thumb’s depth before watering again. Too much water can encourage root and fruit rot while too little can cause developing fruits to be aborted, so maintaining a good moisture balance is essential.
Choosing and Harvesting Strawberries
Strawberries harvested at the right time should be sweet and red through and though Successfully growing strawberries starts with choosing a great variety. Some strawberries are June bearing (single season)–meaning they produce just one large crop early in the season–while others are everbearing (day neutral)–meaning they produce one large spring crop and then continue producing intermittently through summer and especially in fall. Additionally, varieties may be early-, midseason-, mid-late season-, or late-bearing. I turned to my favorite source for superb berries, Nourse Farms, based in Whately, MA. Their stock is reasonable, always healthy, and they have a great selection. This year I chose the flavorful, everbearing ‘Albion‘.
Replanting Strawberry Runners
The last important piece to understand about strawberries is how to maintain their runners and when to replant. Strawberry parent plants need to be replaced around every three years. Strawberries send out runners, each runner terminating in a new plant. The runners need to be managed to keep plants from becoming overcrowded (once again try to maintain reasonable space between plants to encourage larger berries), but the new plantlets produced by runners can eventually be nurtured to used to replace tired parent plants. Unwanted runners can simply be snipped away or moved to create an even larger berry patch.
A perfectly formed and ripened strawberry is a wonderful thing. Berries with fully developed sugars should be red through and through and have a balanced tart and sweet flavor. When strawberry season is on, I always take the time to make strawberry rhubarb crumble (recipe below). It’s my family’s favorite way to enjoy garden-grown strawberries, aside from eating them fresh with cream. There’s nothing like picking our own for whatever strawberry delight we might create during strawberry season. Thanks Rodale and Bailey!
Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble
5 cups quartered fresh strawberries
3 cups thinly sliced fresh rhubarb
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup tapioca
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice and a tsp of finely grated zest
3/4 cup white whole wheat flour
3/4 cup old-fashioned oats
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, sliced into thin pats
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease a 7-by-11-inch baking dish.
Mix the strawberries, rhubarb, sugar, tapioca, lemon juice and zest together in a large bowl, and pour the mixture into the greased baking dish.
Add the flour, oats, light brown sugar, and salt in a medium-sized bowl and whisk together. Place the diced butter to the mixture, and work it together with your fingers until it’s crumbly. Evenly distribute the crumb mixture on top of the fruit.
Bake the crisp in the oven for 40 minutes. The fruit filling should bubble along the sides and the top should be golden brown.
Serve it with ice cream if warm or whipped cream if cold.
* The same filling can be placed in a double pie crust and baked for the same period of time, if you’d prefer pie.
Strawberries have a simple beauty and appeal not lost on children. Whether grown in containers, mounds, or patches, they’re sure to please. For kids, ever-bearing varieties that produce intermittent berries all season are best.
This spring, my oldest daughter and I created a strawberry mound with some spare bricks and a little ingenuity. We amended the mound with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend and fertilized our berries with organic fertilizer for small fruits. Then let the berries begin!