By JOYCE COMINGORE
The garden at Trafalgar Middle School on Southwest 20th Avenue is doing very well. They have harvested a zucchini, pickling cucumbers and lots of radishes. They need to get the leaf lettuce picked; it is bunching up into big bunches and to keep it coming it is necessary to pick it. They have now built two mounds of soil to accommodate strawberry plants. Mound planting lets you cover more growing surface, so a patch is accomplished in a smaller space. We're off to see a wizard about buying plants.
With apologies to Gertrude Stein, "a rose may be a rose," but a strawberry is a strawberry is a rose. So are cherries, apples, apricots, pears, plums, peaches, almonds, raspberries, blackberries and cut roses. The Rosaceae family is the third most economically important crop plant family, right after the grass and the pea family. The strawberry is the only fruit with its seeds on the outside of the fruit.
The Fragaria genus is an herbaceous perennial, a very important crop in Florida. We rank second to California in production. For hundreds of years, wild strawberries were all that was available, very tiny, with a tart flavor. Then France imported some Virginia strawberries, hybridizing them by planting them next to yellow Chilean strawberries that cross-pollinated to produce our sweet larger red berries. They are tender when ripe, and they will not ripen more once pulled from their vine. Once the cap is pulled off, it will deteriorate quickly. They must be kept refrigerated, and don't wash them until ready to fix them.
Store the berries using the untouched rule if you plan to freeze them. Just pop them into a baggy and put them into the freezer unwashed and uncapped. Rinse briefly, after thawing, removing the caps just before you are ready to serve them.
There are five basic anatomical structures making up a strawberry plant: the leaf, the roots, the crown (center of the plant), stolon (runners) and the daughter plants forming on the runners. The leaves and roots absorb the water and nutrients for growth and reproduction. The top three inches of the soil contain 70 percent of the plants roots, so water often. The crown contains the productive system. They produce the stolons and the flowering stalks. If you contain the growth by clipping the first blooms and stolons, you will cause multiplication of the crowns. The daughter plants are maintained by the runners until their root bud comes in contact with the soil, establishing their own root system. The runner stem dies and drops off leaving a whole new plant.
The three classes of plants are Day-Neutral, Everbearing and June bearing. June bearing, as it implies, produce one large crop a year for 2 or 3 weeks, with large berries and lots of runners (stolens). Everbearing produces fruits intermittently in spring, summer and fall and have few runners. Everbearing and Day-Neutral don't send out many runners, instead concentrating on producing multiple harvests. Florida University and ECHO both recommend "Sweet Charlie" and "Festival" varieties for Southern Florida. Both are short-day varieties. ECHO recommends the short-day or Day-neutral varieties. Short-day plants are the ones that produce when days are short and nights are long, while Day-neutral set up and produce regardless of day length.
November is the typical time to plant strawberries in Southern Florida. According to the University of Florida, in order to develop flowers, ergo, fruits, they need 50 up to 80 degree F temperatures, with day lengths of 14 hours or less. Needing at least 8 hours of direct sun per day, to do well, you can try a sunny spot in the mornings and afternoons if a full day is not available. With slightly acid, well drained soil, that has about 2 pounds of 10-10-10 with micronutrients, you can set in your transplants.
Seeds are a very iffy process, so go right for the mature plant. The important thing is never plant the crown too deep, covering it, or leave the roots exposed by shallow plantings. Flowers and fruits are damaged by cold weather below 32 degrees. Cover with sheets in that case. Never plant straw berries in soil that has raised tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and potatoes until 4 or 5 years later. Nematodes are drawn there and verticillum wilt comes along.
We hope to plant up hill and down the hill, covering the mounds. Watering will be needed daily for the plants when they are small, and twice a week after they get larger. We may need to cover with bird netting to keep the birds out. We'll see. We hope for two strawberry patches. We need to stagger the plants in the rows, keeping at least a 12-inch space in between plants, letting runner plants keep 4 to 6 inches apart. Some people like to cut off the runners to let the nutrition go to the main plant that will produce bigger berries, and more crowns.
You start them in November in South-west Florida because the plants do not do well in our heat. Since the best fruit is produced on young plants, with four or five branched crowns, they are treated as annuals here and plowed under at the end of the season, using new plants the next year. We will experiment and see how they over-summer.
Native to the Americas, our all-American top favorite berry dessert, strawberries are not found in Africa, New Zealand and Australia, which have no indigenous forms, I read. New Zealand can grow imported berry plants.
Looking for a Bon Appetit, enjoy a strawberry shortcake.
Also, thank a tree for your air quality of life!
Joyce Comingore is a Master Gardener, hibiscus enthusiast and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.