2014-03-27 / From The Garden

New Heights for Strawberry Growing

By Cynthia Gibson

I am always on the lookout for new gardening tips and was very interested to learn of a clever way to grow strawberries. A friend of mine uses a PVC gutter attached to the railing on her garden fence. Her berries looked so luscious that I wanted to share the idea.

The beauty of this technique is that the days of backbreaking weeding and bending down to find berries under leaves are over. Moreover, with the bed nearly waist high, the problems caused by voles, moles, and mice are history.

Here’s what to do. Go to your favorite home improvement store to buy PVC gutters and have them cut to the size of your railing. Of course, measure the length of the railing before heading out. Don’t forget the end caps. You will also need to purchase U-shaped racks to attach the gutter to the railing. Drill one hole about every three feet for drainage. Do not drill more holes, as too much water will escape and you will be watering every day. Remember, our temperatures get into the 80s and 90s during the summer and gutters, like pots, will dry out quickly. Once filled with potting soil, the gutters are ready to host your plants.

Start the project this summer. My plan is to have a “double gutter” planting, with one on each side of the railing. In the second year, I hope to place bamboo hoops in the soil about two feet apart and cover the resulting arches with netting secured by duct tape to the bottom of the gutters. This will allow for easy watering and fertilizing while offering protection from birds and other creatures.

While you might get a berry or two in the first year, it is actually better to remove every flower in the first season. Pinching the flowers helps the root system to take hold and strengthens the plant. In subsequent years, your berries will be bigger and tastier.

Which strawberries are best? One pertinent factor is whether you want them to produce all summer long or whether you prefer one early large crop.

I prefer the former. Strawberries that produce all summer and into the fall are known as “day-neutral” and the best variety is Mara des Bois. They are medium-sized and pack a wallop of flavor. They also make the best jam, strawberry shortcake, and strawberry puree to slather over homemade angel food cake.

As for strawberries best suited for Rhode Island, delicious options abound and can be purchased at local outlets such as Chaves’ Garden Center, Peckham’s, Maher Garden Center, or Moore Blooms, and online at Nourse Farms. The two best mid-summer varieties are Cavendish and Honeoye. They produce sweet medium- to large-sized fruit and freeze well, too. The best early variety is Earliglow, while the favorite mid- to late-season choice is Sparkle, especially for beginners.

For a family of four, plan on at least 20 to 30 plants. If you do not select a day-neutral variety, you will enjoy two to three weeks of fresh strawberries. The “runners,” or off-shoots, can be snipped to start a new plant. Rather than growing from seed, the runners can produce your new plants for years to come.

Place the seedlings five inches apart. It is also helpful to use a dibber to make the perfect hole; strawberries are very fussy about their root systems and thrive best when planted vertically.

A southern exposure is best, with not much shade, as these sun-loving plants need six to eight hours of sunlight per day. As mold is the number one enemy of strawberries, fresh air circulation is also imperative.

When your berries begin to ripen, pick them once a day in the afternoon when they are at their sweetest.

Strawberries are perennials and will come back year after year. In winter, remove the gutters from the railing with the plants in place. Store them in a shed or garage and cover with leaves or straw. When spring arrives, toss off the cover and replenish with fresh potting soil and fertilizer. Once the gutters are back on the railing hooks, you can look forward to another year of fresh fruit and another batch of strawberry jam.

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