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Grow your own strawberries

KENNEWICK -- Imagine picking a sweet juicy strawberry straight from your own garden and popping it in your mouth.

Delicious!

Strawberries are so easy to grow. If you haven't tried growing strawberries yourself, you should.

Here are some tips on getting started.

1. Strawberries are a herbaceous perennial. This means they come back from their roots and crown for successive years. Single plants can live four to five years, so do a good job preparing a strawberry bed for planting. Locate you the bed in a sunny spot with good drainage. Work the soil up, tilling in some fertilizer and organic matter, such as well-rotted compost.

2. What varieties to grow? There are three types of strawberries. Those called "June-bearing" varieties have a main crop of berries in June or July and produce lots of runners from which new plants are started within the strawberry bed. "Day-neutral" varieties produce few runners but develop fruit throughout the growing season, only stopping during the hottest part of summer. "Everbearing" strawberries produce few runners, but do have two crops of berries, one in June or July and another one in the fall.

I prefer day-neutrals because I can go out and pick a few berries almost any time during the growing season. My favorites are Tristar and Tribute, but Selva, Tillicum, and Seascape are also fairly good picks. Some of the best June-bearing varieties for eastern Washington gardens are Hood, Shuksan, Benton, and Rainier with Rainier and Shuksan having the best flavor. Some acceptable everbearing varieties are Quinault, Ozark Beauty, and Fort Laramie, but experts say the day-neutrals perform better.

3. Only buy plants that are "certified virus-free." Don't use starts from your old plants or from other gardeners' plants. Over time, strawberries usually become infected with viruses. You can't tell by looking that plants are infected, but the viruses seriously limit fruit production.

4. Spacing your plants is important. June-bearers are normally grown in a "matted row" where plants are set 15 to 24 inches apart within rows situated 36 to 42 inches apart. Runners are allowed to fill in the spaces between plants and within the row until the "matted row" is 14 to 18 inches wide.

Because day-neutrals don't produce plentiful runners they're grown in "hills" with plants placed 10 to 18 inches apart. One runner is allowed to start another plant between the two mother plants, keeping plants 8 inches apart.

5. One of the most common mistakes novice growers make with strawberries is at planting time. Look for the swollen base of the plant from which the leaves and roots originate. This is called the crown. When planted, the middle of the crown should be at soil level with half of the crown above the soil line and half below.

The roots should be spread out in the planting hole with the top roots just below the surface of the soil. Be sure to check this again after you water the plants in to settle the soil. If too deep, the crown will rot, and if too shallow, the roots will dry out and die.

6. Another common mistake is watering too much. Excessive water leads to crown and root rot, especially if the crown is set too deep or if drainage is poor. Keep soil moderately moist, not wet.

If you want to plant strawberries and need more information, check out WSU Extension publication EB 1640, "Growing Small Fruits for the Home Garden," available online at https://pubs.wsu.edu;

or Oregon State Extension publication EC1307, "Growing Strawberries in Your Home Garden," at http://extension. oregonstate.edu/catalog.

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension.

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