Strawberries are the quintessential summer fruit — fragrant, juicy jolts of flavor that are best picked warm and ripe right out of the garden.
But if you're planting now, you'll have to be ruthless to get the crop you crave.
That means stripping the plants of every flower, bud and berry for at least a month after you put them in the ground, says Yvonne Savio, retired director of Los Angeles County's master gardener program and the voice behind the gardening blog GardeningInLA.net.
Strawberries are best planted in the fall in Southern California, Savio said, so the plants have months of mild weather to settle in and develop the strong roots they'll need for the hot summers to come.
But strawberry plants are seemingly everywhere these days at nurseries and home supply stores, tempting us with the promise of fresh berries.
So what to do now?
When planting in the spring, "you have to tell the plant to put its energy to its root system rather than putting out blossoms and fruit," Savio said. "This is really hard for some people to do, but it's really the most critical thing if you want the plant to continue growing through the heat and putting out berries."
Strawberries are attractive plants and do well in containers — about 20-inches deep or so — which makes them ideal for small-space gardens, such as a sunny patio, or even a front porch. If you have the room for it, Savio suggests indulging with two- to three-dozen plants across a 4-by-8-foot garden space or raised bed. Your reward will be enough berries to put on your cereal every day, and more for your freezer.
And, as with most tender, delicious fruit, you'll be competing with birds and bugs to get your harvest, Savio said.
Ultimately you may decide it's simpler to buy your berries at the farmers market, she said, "but they're great for kids to grow and pick. It's definitely one of those things that, as a gardener, you want to grow at least once."
If you're planting this spring, do it as soon as possible, Savio said. Here are her tips for a healthy crop of summer strawberries:
1. Coffee grounds, compost and manure
Strawberries need airy, well-amended soil, so whether you're planting in containers or beds, mix up the soil a good 6 to 8 inches deep, with a cup each of bagged steer manure, compost and coffee grounds for each plant. (Savio gets her grounds from coffee shops near her Pasadena home. "I've found them to be a tremendous boost to everything in my garden."). Space plants about 9 inches apart and about 3 inches deep, so you're covering the roots but not the crown or leaves.
2. Mulch with straw
Cover the ground around the plants with clean straw, to help keep the soil moist and the fruit dry. The straw also deters slugs, snails and other pests who think strawberries are delicious too. If you're using containers try to keep the fruit dangling to keep it dry.
3. Companions, not competitors
Strawberries do well with other plant companions such as lettuce, which starts dying back in the heat of summer, when strawberries start producing. Basil and other warm-season herbs are good companions too, but be sure you choose plants with similar water needs. Strawberries need regular water when they are getting established, too much water for herbs like rosemary and lavender that prefer life on the dry side.
4. Reduce water before harvest
Commercial growers tend to pump their berries with water to make them large, Savio said, but it dilutes their flavor. For a more intense strawberry flavor, cut back on watering once the blossoms become little green berries. "Keep the soil moist so the plants keep growing, but if you pull back on the water, it helps the plant focus on ripening the fruit."
5. Watch for runners!
Strawberries don't just produce fruit, they also send out runners in the fall that will produce new plants. If your strawberries are in containers, try to direct the runners inside the pot, or into soil in other prepared pots. The runners will take root, and after a month or two you can sever the ties that connect the baby plants to their mother. Nurture your strawberry babies, Savio said, because the mother plants stop producing a lot of fruit after a couple of years.