The Secret to Growing Hydroponic Strawberries at Home
History and Cultivation
Strawberries are perfect fruit plants for any beginner gardener. They are adapted to a wide range of growing conditions and can be grown in containers, hanging baskets, garden beds, or even as edible landscaping. The contrast of their bright berries against deep verdant green leaves is a beautiful sight in any garden.
Strawberry plants’ prolific yields and low-growing habit makes them a very rewarding crop that is easy to tend. As perennials, they can be planted once and harvested repeatedly. They also continuously create new baby plants via runners. As long as they have plenty of space and rich slightly acidic soil, strawberries will eagerly fruit for years to come.
Where Does the Strawberry Come From?
Strawberries are one of the most popular fruits in the world that happen to have originated in the Americas. The wild North American strawberry Fragaria virginiana has been harvested by indigenous people for many centuries. The first records of cultivated strawberries date back to the 1600s when colonists shipped larger strawberry plants back to Europe.
Later, another variety of wild strawberries (Fragaria chiloensis) was discovered in South America and shipped back to Europe as well. Plant breeders went to work hybridizing the F. virginiana and F. chiloensis lines to create modern strawberry cultivars grown on farms and in gardens, which belong to the species Fragaria ×ananassa.
From Wild to Tame Strawberries
You can find wild strawberries growing in the meadows of Montana, mountains of Oregon, and lush forests of the northeast. These tiny wild jewels are highly coveted amongst foraging enthusiasts, but it takes at least 5 or 10 wild strawberries to match the size of a single cultivated one! Yet their flavor is unmatched by any name-brand clamshell in the grocery store.
Over the centuries, strawberries have been traditionally bred to produce larger and greater quantities of fruit than their wild counterparts. But industrial strawberry farming has become increasingly reliant on toxic fumigants and transport-friendly cultivars at the detriment of flavor and nutrition. The result is often bland, watery strawberries harvested unripe and shipped across the country. They may be large, but they have no remnants of the rich aroma and antioxidant profile of wild strawberries.
So how do you get the best of both worlds? By growing your own, of course!
Where are Most Strawberries Grown?
Strawberries love the mild temperate climates of coastal California, the Pacific Northwest, northern Florida, and parts of the Carolinas. Winter and early spring strawberries in grocery stores typically come from southern California. Summer and fall strawberries come from other regions in the northwest, midwest, and northeast. No matter where your garden is, you can probably grow your own strawberries as long as you plant at the right time.
Strawberries are typically vegetatively propagated (by division or crown) rather than sexually propagated (by seed). This is because strawberry seeds take a long time to mature and are less reliable than crowns. Strawberry crowns are young rooted plants that have been harvested, cleaned, stored, and shipped for replanting. They give gardeners a head start in the spring and quickly begin growing into happy large plants.
How to Propagate Strawberries
One cool thing about strawberries is that, once you plant them, they tend to multiply quite easily. If you don’t prune your strawberries, you’ll end up with new strawberry plants all over the place. Though I recommend pruning for the best yields, you can also leave some runners to propagate your own strawberry crowns.
What are Runners?
Runners are simply long stems from a mother plant that grow into new baby plants. If left to grow, these runners can root and grow into new plants. This is how strawberries become “matted” into a ground cover in the wild.
However, because plants put so much energy into producing new plants from runners, they typically yield less fruit. If you want to propagate your own strawberries without risking fruit loss, I recommend pruning the runners of all but a few plants.
You can allow the runners of the remaining plants to root and then cut the runner from the mother plant (sort of like an umbilical cord) to allow it to fully establish its roots. Then, these new plants can be dug up and replanted in other areas of the garden to allow for proper spacing and promote more vigor.
Bare Root vs. Plugs
Bare root strawberry crowns are the most common method for planting strawberries. This propagation material is exactly what it sounds like: you receive the barren roots of the crowns without any soil attached. These crowns have been dug up from mother strawberry plants, washed, refrigerated, and shipped to you or a garden store.
On the other hand, strawberry plugs are more similar to the vegetable seedlings you are used to purchasing in stores. These strawberry plants have been rooted in soil and arrive to you in a potted container with soil or another growing medium.
Planting strawberries is a fun and easy activity for gardeners of all ages. Unlike planting seeds, strawberry crowns don’t require as much precision with spacing and irrigation. However, they do require special attention to detail regarding the depth of planting.
When to Plant
To understand how to plant strawberries, we must first return to the lifecycle of these unique plants. As hardy herbaceous perennials, strawberries die back in the winter and grow back vigorously when the weather warms again in the spring. Though their leaves appear dead, the crowns and roots are still hard at work growing and maturing beneath the surface.
Strawberries can be planted in the spring or fall depending on your growing zone and the variety of strawberries you choose.
Some strawberry cultivars (June-bearers) spend the first year getting established and don’t begin fruiting until spring of their second year. Sometimes gardeners will even remove any flowers and fruit from these establishing plants so that they put their energy into the roots. Their patience is rewarded in the second year with abundant flushes of fruit around June.
Other varieties called day-neutrals will root and fruit in the first year of growth. These are often grown as annuals in commercial production systems. Though they could continue growing in their second and third season, the production peeters off and it is often easier to manage weeds and disease by replanting each year. We’ll cover more details of each type below.
In general, from zone 6 and colder, strawberries should be planted in the spring so that they can establish their roots before the following winter. When planted this way, strawberries can be managed as true perennials and left in place to grow back year after year. In extra-cold northern zones, strawberries will need a deep mulch (such as straw) over the top to keep the roots alive through the winter. This mulch is typically applied after the leaves have died back in the first heavy frosts of autumn.
Southern zones 7 and warmer should plant strawberries in the fall. They will flower and fruit as early as February of the following spring. Mature plantings can be lifted from the soil in September and relocated to other parts of the garden to promote high yields and decrease the risk of disease. Certain varieties called day-neutrals can also be grown as annuals for easier weeding and management. This method is very common in Florida strawberry production. We’ll talk more about the different types of strawberries below.
How to Plant Strawberry Crowns
The hardest part of growing strawberries is planting them. Once you understand the basics, it isn’t particularly difficult, but it requires some knowledge of what you’re doing.
Let’s begin with the anatomy of the plant: A strawberry crown has three main sections, the top (where the leaves are already beginning to grow or will soon emerge), the crown (the woody center brown section), and the roots that extend downward from the crown.
You can plant strawberries as bare root crowns or from plug starts. Plugs are the most beginner-friendly because they are already rooted and leafed out. Crowns are more economical and affordable if you are growing larger amounts of strawberries.
Not Too Deep, Not Too Shallow
When planting strawberries, it is incredibly important not to bury the crown either too deep or too shallow. The crown should be submerged enough that watering won’t cause it to float up when watered. However, the crown should never be buried so deep that the growing point is beneath the soil and new leaves cannot sprout.
Strawberry crowns are susceptible to rot and other pathogens, so it is very important that you plant them as soon as possible after purchase. If a crown has any signs of mold or mildew on it, discard immediately and try to prevent contaminating your other crowns. Trust me, there is nothing worse than planting all your strawberry crowns only to realize a few weeks later that half of them have died due to rot or improper handling.
Preparing Bare Root Crowns
When strawberry crowns arrive, you should immediately remove any rubber bands or ties from the bundles of crowns. Loosen the crowns to allow airflow between them and store between damp paper towels in your refrigerator until you’re ready to plant. Bare root crowns are best planted as soon as possible after purchase.
About 1-12 hours or so before planting, soak the bare root strawberry crowns in a diluted water solution. Just soak the roots and try to avoid submerging the entire plant. This helps awaken them from dormancy and rehydrate the root system before planting.
Planting Strawberry Plugs
Strawberry plugs are already rooted like a regular vegetable seedling. They have already broken dormancy and begun growing leaves. You can plant them just as you would a lettuce plug, keeping the soil surface at the same level as the original plant.
Preparing Strawberry Beds