Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Gardening Today: Strawberries

A small plot of ground can produce an appreciable amount of strawberries. About 100 square feet of garden can produce 5 to 10 pounds of fruit, while an acre can produce 1500 to 4000 pounds of fruit, depending upon growing conditions. The following cultural practices and measures are recommended for growing strawberries in Montana.



Though strawberries can be produced in partial shade, they do best in full sun. The site should be neither extremely wet nor swampy, nor extremely dry or overdrained. Avoid sites having deep-rooted perennial weeds or quackgrass.



A "fertile" soil is recommended. This means it should be high in organic matter and minerals (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). Strawberries prefer acid soil, though they can be grown in slightly alkaline situations.



Preparing the Bed
Unless the garden is in an extremely dry-windy area, it is advisable to plant on slightly raised beds. Work the soil well. Work some well-composted manure, if available, or other organic matter into it. Also spread fertilizer on it and work it in (see next topic). Then make furrows putting the soil from them on beds about 36 inches wide and as long as desired or room allows. On slightly raised beds, the plants will have more or deeper topsoil for roots, adequate drainage and by using wide beds less area will be taken up by furrows. Row planting requires more garden space for an equivalent number or plant population. The single furrows, on each side of the 36-inch bed should be about 12 inches wide.



Use a fertilizer such as Bill's Rose and Flower Food or any blend containing a moderate amount of nitrogen, phosphate and perhaps potassium at a rate of about one-half pound per 10 linear feet of bed or 30 square feet of ground. After spreading it evenly work it down 7 to 8 inches deep. For larger or commercial plantings have the soil tested through your local county extension office for fertilizer needs. If stronger fertilizer is used, such as 27-14-0, then use less than one-half pound per 30 square feet. If a weaker mix is used, such as 5-10-5, then put on more than one-half pound per 30 square feet.



There are numerous varieties that will grow in Montana. A few are listed below.

Everbearing Varieties
These varieties produce two crops in one season - an early one which is harvested in late June and July and a second crop harvested in late August and September.

Fort Laramie - Introduced from the Cheyenne Field Station. Firm, large, sweet fruit, produces a very heavy crop of berries at one time, good for cold areas.

Ogallala - Very winter hardy, of mild pleasant flavor, deep red throughout flesh and a fair yielder. It is fair for freezing, a poor shipper, and a very valuable fruit for eating and as a jam.

Ozark Beauty - Large red fruit, excellent eating and dessert quality.

Tristar - New variety similar to Ozark Beauty, very good flavor, very productive, red flesh, produces very few runners.

Junebearing Variety
This variety produces one crop per year and none in the fall and is harvested in late June and July in Montana.

Sparkle - Very hardy, fruit medium to large, high yielder and very good for freezing.




About Planting
Strawberries can be set out anytime during the growing season, but spring is the best time. Late fall planting resulting in poor growth before winter is conducive to a high plant loss.

On a 3-foot bed, plant two rows about 18 inches between rows, having the rows centered on the bed. Each row will be about nine inches from edge of bed. In row spacing (between plants) should be about two feet. The spacing of plants within the two rows should be staggered. See diagram.
Setting the Plants

Open hole with spade or trowel deep enough for the roots. Place roots in hole and press soil firmly around roots with hands. It is important that all roots are in the ground. Do not cover the bud with soil by planting too deep, because this may smother the plant. Water immediately after setting. See diagram.




Weed Control and Watering
For small strawberry plantings, hand weeding is generally recommended. Landscape fabric will control weeds in furrows or between rows and beds.

Strawberry plants should never be subjected to drought stress. Under normal soil conditions water about once per week putting on about one inch of water. For real sandy or gravelly soil in which moisture does not stay long, it is advisable to water more often than once per week to avoid drought stress, but put on only about one-half inch per setting.

Fall Watering - Prior to ground freezing, but after the weather has cooled off-generally in November, it is advisable to water the bed heavily to avoid winter drought. Resume watering early in spring as soon as the ground has thawed.

Do Not Over-Water - Too much water may predispose the plants to disease, over-cool the bed and too much water will leach or flush out the soil nitrogen and other minerals moving them deep down into the subsoil or bed rock. This is a waste of water as well as valuable plant nutrients.


Managing the Runners
Runners are the principal means of producing new plants. As runners develop, move them so that the new plants will be placed or distributed evenly throughout the bed. The number of runners vary among varieties-some bear many more new plants than there is room for. So it is necessary to cut off or pinch off surplus runners before they develop into new plants. A bed over-crowded or matted with plants will produce little or no fruit. Each strawberry plant needs about thirty square inches of space or no more than three or five plants per square foot.


Winter Protection
It pays to provide a winter mulch for strawberries in Montana. Mulches may be any insulating material that will shield the bed from wind and intense sunlight. These materials include straw, evergreen boughs, corn stalks, paper, sawdust, or any material with insulating quality. Also for a small bed it is advisable to put out boards or something that will cast shade on the bed during winter months. The mulch or covers should be put on from mid to late November and removed as soon as buds on nearby shrubs begin to swell in the early spring or as soon as there is no danger of a hard freeze.


 Insect Control and Diseases
Most insects in Montana may be controlled with Malathion. However, if Malathion is used during harvest do not eat any fruit within four days after spraying. Rotenone will control many strawberry insects and it is safe to use anytime. However, if used during harvest be sure to wash the fruit prior to using or eating. Do not eat fruit within one day after spraying with Rotenone.

Cortical root rot in strawberries is a fungus disease that is widespread throughout the state. This disease is difficult to control because it is encouraged by freezing damage to roots. The following steps will reduce this disease. Do not over-water or over-fertilize with nitrogen. Mulch the bed during winter months to reduce freezing. This disease is not as intense in high organic soils as in mineral soils. Increasing organic matter will reduce this problem. Dig out and destroy all plants showing this root-rot disease or other abnormalities.

Fruit rots can be prevented by:

  • Mulching to reduce fruit contact with the soil
  • Adequate space between plants
  • Avoid wetting fruit during harvest
  • Spraying with a recommended fungicide


Renewing the Bed
A strawberry bed can be continued indefinitely for many years by removing old plants and cultivating new runner plants. However, after about three harvest seasons it is advisable and generally less work to move the bed to another site. Plant a new bed the spring of the third harvest year of the old bed. With this schedule it is possible to have strawberries.