I won’t kid you, growing good strawberries is going to take some work on your part.  The good news is it isn’t a large amount of work or hard work, the bad news is it takes a consistent commitment. After years of failures we have found some key elements that have made the difference.

The Water  The first change I made was in how they are watered.  Strawberries are a shallow rooted crop and the getting the best requires consistent watering. I now believe the only way to water them is drip irrigation, further than that I believe the best is to use a product called T-Tape.  It is tubing with the emitters built-in as opposed to adding separate button drippers.  It is available in several emitter spacings and flow rates.  We used the 8” on center emitters with a slow flow rate.  This applies about 20 gallons per hour per 100’ of row.  The benefit is that the water spreads when applied slowly and ends up consistent along the row.  The next thing is some sort of timer so that they will always get watered when they should.  No matter how hard I tried in the past, things come up and watering became an erratic chore. This way it takes no time or worries on your part.  While it does cost some up front, the pay off is worth it.

The Soil  I think this is the least important aspect.  I know in some circles that would be considered blasphemy, but you really don’t have that much control over your soil in a perennial setting. Virtually all authorities and books will tell you that strawberries need a sandy soil not clay. We grew our berries in the standard Moriarty Muck technically called by the USGS “Witt clay loam”.  It is a  fairly heavy clay, slightly reddish in color that when wet becomes slicker than oil and when dry becomes hard as a rock and cracks appear on the surface.  As long as you have good drainage and consistent moisture that is what seems to be important.

Soil Amendments  I am not telling you to not amend your soil, we did. We initially added about a 2-3” layer of aged manure and rototilled it in when preparing the beds to increase the tilth.  However after about 60 days no matter how much organic material you added it seems to have disappeared.  Because of bacterial action it will have broken down and very little organic matter will have resulted.  If you could continue to dig in more compost etc it would be one thing but from here on for the next 3-5 years this bed is permanent and can’t be rototilled or dug.  I think it is best to annually add compost to the top using a vegetative compost not manure.  Manures will result in increasing the ph and leave behind higher levels of certain salts.  Several of the latest studies suggest that top dressing with compost may not be that effective due to oxidation in the first 1” or 2”.   I don’t have an answer one way or another but tend to believe that since strawberries are shallow rooted the slow fertilization of compost will help along with any organic matter being an improvement in our soils.  That is why I say you don’t really have much control over the soil in these beds.  The real answer as to how good your soil is lies in the number of earthworms present.  If you have earthworms, you are on the right track.  A good soil will have 10 earthworms per cubic foot of soil, so dig in and if you have two or three earthworms in a shovelful, you are doing great.

Soil PH  This is probably the most important aspect in dealing with soil.  Notoriously our PH is high and adding water which is also a high ph doesn’t help.  All books will tell you that 6-6.8 ph is best.  Our ph comes in at 8.2, way too high for my liking.  I recommend everyone get a soil test so they know what they are dealing with and test their water supply. Barring that, purchase a soil PH kit and do your own testing. From my observations anything in the under 8 range will probably be ok with lower being better. The most noticeable issue with strawberries from a high ph is “Iron Chlorosis”.  This looks like nitrogen deficiency where the leaves get a pale yellow and the veins are still green.  If you are not an organic grower it is easily corrected by chelated iron.  If you are certified then you must use sulfur or cottonseed meal to slowly lower your ph.  More about this in a later post as it requires more space to cover fairly.

Fertilizing  We used no fertilizer or compost in this first season save for the initial dig in of manure. Over fertilizing can result in more, smaller berries with poor flavor.  The addition of nitrogen will give lush green plants at the expense of fruit.  Our soil testing showed sufficient amounts of phosphorus and potassium in the native soil and these are what is needed for good root growth and fruiting.