One of my favorite kinds of food to grow is strawberries. I just love strawberries. I have only been growing them for 4 years and as this year’s crop comes to an end, I have taken a few minutes to look back on my experiments and see what I have learned. I guess I have been doing some things right. My neighbor keeps asking me how I get them to taste so much like strawberries. I think he is used to getting grocery store berries. But, I must admit that these are some of the tastiest strawberries I have ever eaten.
Choosing plugs or bare root plants
I choose to use strawberry plugs. These are plants that are usually started from runners and grown in a greenhouse. They come in soil, with an intact root ball and are actively growing. I prefer to use these for several reasons. You plant these in the Fall and pick them in the Spring. You only have about a 1% loss of plants using this option. Also, the plants will become more vigorous sooner. I grow Chandler and Sweet Charlie. The plugs are typically shipped anywhere from the beginning of September to the beginning of October depending on your location. It is a good idea to plant these as soon as you possibly can, but it is not essential to plant them immediately.
Bare root strawberries are usually stored in a freezer and shipped dormant. They need to be planted right away. They come with no dirt on their roots and are usually rubber banded together in a lot of 25 plants. There is about a 15 – 20% loss on this option. These are planted in the Spring. You will not get as large of a crop with this method, as the growing season is shorter. But, if you are growing at home, how many strawberries do you need? I got lots and lots with the plugs and ended up putting up lots and lots and giving away lots and lots to neighbors and friends.
Choosing a location for Your Strawberries
Strawberries like a location with plenty of sunshine. As with any crop you should keep it weed free. The soil should have good drainage and a pH of about 6.5. If you do not have a location that will drain well it is best to grow your strawberries in a Raised Garden Bed. Mix peat moss or compost with your soil as you are working it prior to planting.
Planting Your Strawberries
The berries should be planted about 12 – 18 inches apart in rows that are 3 – 4 feet apart. You should plant them so that the midpoint of the crown is level with the soil.
Strawberry Plant Crown
If you plant them too deep or too shallow you run the risk of losing the plant. The easiest way to keep the strawberries weed free is to use plastic garden mulch. We use the white on black here in the South to help keep our soil cooler. We use a Drip Tape Irrigation System under the plastic mulch. Even with the mulch we find that we have runners that make their way to the edge of the bed and they will take root.
Care in Winter (for Strawberry plugs)
There are a couple of different way s to approach this. You can mulch with about 2″ of straw or hay in the winter when they start to go dormant. You will want to leave this on until the tops of the crowns start to show in the Spring. We have so many limited cold days in the Winter that we chose another option. We use Frost Protection Row Cover and only put it on when the temperature drops below freezing at night. We got this idea by watching our commercial strawberry growers in the area. This year I had a long double row and a short double row that was only about 10 feet long. I decided to experiment with the short row. We had unbelievably cold temperatures this winter. We even got down to 9 degrees F one night. That was a record for us. The entire week was chilly with overnight temps in the teens. I decided not to cover my short row during this week. Actually, I did not cover my short row all Winter long. The plants suffered a little bit with some burn on the leaves. But, come Spring they were producing at the same rate as the long row. I would not try this in a colder location, but it worked out well for us. This is the second year for these plants. Strawberries are perennials, so they grow year after year. I will probably try to leave them in for one more year, although I did see slightly smaller berries this year. The first year I grew them they died in our summer heat. Actually, my first try was not all that successful. I am not entirely sure why. But, we did move them from a separate location into our main garden the second year. I tried using a low tunnel with the slitted cover that winter. I left it on all winter, even though that is not the recommended way to use them. The problem came in the Spring. I was in there with a paint brush hand pollinating everything. I have to tell you, that didn’t last long. It was time for them to make it on their own or not. So, I reluctantly removed the cover. They did just fine. We removed these plants as we needed the space for other items. But, my third attempt has been my most successful just using the frost protection as needed. As I mentioned these plants are still in the ground producing in my strawberry growing year 4.
Preserving Your Strawberries
So, now that you have a bumper crop what do you do with your strawberries? I use several different manners of preserving. I made Strawberry Jam. Nothing better. I froze some. I wash them well and put them on a cookie sheet lined with clingy wrap in the freezer to pre freeze. Some of them I leave whole, some I cut in slices. We let them freeze overnight. In the morning we take them out and portion them in proper sizes for us and put them in one of our FoodSaver bags. This is a vacuum sealer. We have owned one for probably 15 – 20 years now. It is super as far as extending the life of food in the freezer. We then mark our bags and put them back in the freezer. Another way is to dehydrate them. We have an Excalibur Food Dehydrator that we have owned probably for 15 – 20 years. I like to slice them thin, my husband says too thin, but hey, I am doing the work so it goes the way I like it. Then you just leave them in the dehydrator on the preset temperature for the suggested time. I just store them in a plastic container and leave them sitting on my kitchen counter. They are great for a sweet little snack. Probably better for me than the snack size chocolates I keep in my freezer. I mean they are pure strawberries and nothing else. But boy, when you dehydrate them they become really sweet. Maybe that is why I like to cut them into thin slices.
This is not the only way to grow strawberries. They do well in containers. I have grown them before in a Strawberry Pot. These work well. I like to put them on a turntable type base so that I can turn them easily, but they can be turned manually just as easily. Give it a try. I am sure you will find growing your own strawberries totally enjoyable and delicious.
Red Plastic Mulch with Drip Irrigation System
There are several ways to set up an irrigation system depending on the type of gardening you are doing. When used with a timer this is absolutely the best way to water your plants. No more forgetting to water or forgetting to turn the hose off when you are watering. Just a nice even daily (or every 2 or 3 days) watering. Inconsistent watering is one of the main causes of blossom end rot in tomatoes and causes multiple issues with any plant. If your plant is too dry it will wilt and possibly die. If it is too wet you can drown it. When properly set up an irrigation will yield up to an 75% – 80% water savings. Irrigation systems are usually used with pressure regulators to lower the pressure of the water in a system. A direct water line will usually have too much pressure for these types of systems.
Drip irrigation is used when you are doing container gardening. This is the type of irrigation system that we used to use on our front porch. We had both hanging baskets and pots set around the edge of the porch. There are complete kits available to do this. Typical parts would include distribution tubing, a pressure regulator, a filter screen, an installation tool to make the holes for the emitters and stakes, end plugs to close off the end of the tubing and a few other parts. You are able to adjust these so that you have an emitter in each pot that you need to water. This kit pictured even comes with a timer.
Drip Tape Irrigation
This is what we use in our garden. In fact the picture at the top of the article with red plastic mulch is my personal garden. We have been doing pretty much the same setup for about 20 years now. It works well for us. This can be used in raised garden beds or standard gardens. We garden in 4′ wide raised garden beds. We plant our seeds and seedlings in 1′ from each edge. We have 2 rows of drip tape in the 4′ wide area, spaced at about 1′ 6″ in from the edge. We put our drip irrigation system down and then we cover it with plastic garden mulch. Then we plant our seeds or seedlings. We have ours on a timer set for 15 minutes every other day. With the water savings from the drip irrigation and the moisture retention from the mulch, we really do not use much water. Even in our summer heat of 100 degree days we do not change from the 15 minutes every other day.
There are drip irrigation kits available. They will have the drip tape which has holes predrilled and all of the fittings you need. A pressure regulator should be used with this system as well. Don’t forget the timer! These don’t usually come in the kits. You simply lay your tape out and staple it down with included ground staples, put all of your fittings together and you are ready to water. They even have goof plugs in case you poke a hole in your tape by mistake. Trust me, it happens occasionally. Oops.
DIY Drip Irrigation System
d-i-y pvc garden irrigation sytem
d-i-y pvc garden irrigation system
For all of you who like a d-i-y project, this one is simple enough to make. You should use schedule 40 PVC pipe 3/4″ in diameter. Drill 1/16″ holes in the appropriate spacing for your plants. You can place this with the holes up or down depending on your preference. Also, if you have a small area you want to do a heavier watering you can drill holes opposite each other. Lay the pipe so that these are pointing out. You will get quite a bit of coverage from this method. If you are doing smaller plants that are spaced closer together you can drill your holes about every 6″. For larger plants like tomatoes you should have holes where the plants are at and an extra 2 – 3 holes in between. I only plant my tomatoes at 3′ apart. I would just do one hole in the center of the plants and one at each plant. I know other people will space their tomatoes as far as 4′ or 5′ apart. For this you would want the 2 – 3 holes in between. You want to make sure that your garden surface is level so that the water will flow. You can lay these out in pretty much any configuration that you want, but you should have ball valves so you can shut off sections or rows. In addition you will need fittings such as t’s, elbows, end caps, pipe cement etc.
Spray Drip Irrigation System
This is perfect if you have a greenhouse or have your plants spaced closely together. The spray heads are adjustable from a light to a heavier spray. This system even comes with a timer!
Greenhouse Watering System
I have always had a similar system in my personal greenhouses. The picture above is from my Halls Magnum that I used to own. Unfortunately it got left in a move. I loved that greenhouse! It is tubing hanging from the top of the greenhouse with spray heads at appropriate spacing. You can see it at the top of the sidewall. The blue is a flexible conduit with wiring for the ventilation system. Again, a time and plant saver.
In conclusion, I would not even attempt to garden without an automatic watering system. As busy as we all are it is just too easy to forget, even though we spend hours in our gardens. Plus, the plants seem to really thrive with a consistent watering schedule. And that is really what it is all about – healthy, high yielding plants.
Top Ten Gardening Tools
Top Ten Gardening Tools
Whether you are a seasoned gardener, or just getting started, you will need a few tools to help you along the way. These tools make our life as gardeners easier. Here is my top 10 list of necessary items.
If any of you are surprised by this I don’t know why. I absolutely love greenhouses. Now, this may not be in the budget for some, and actually it may not even be an absolute necessity. But, a greenhouse is valuable in a couple of different ways. You can start your vegetable seeds for your garden in a small greenhouse. But, if this is not viable for your circumstances you can start your seeds indoors. If you have a large enough greenhouse you can grow your own vegetables all year long if it is set up properly.
2)A mini cultivator or small roto tiller:
You may need to rent or borrow a large tiller for the first time through your garden. I highly recommend a rear tine tiller for this job. It is smoother to run and just seems to get the job done better and faster than a front tine tiller. But, once you get your garden established I find that a mini tiller will do the job for you. They will aerate your soil and remove weeds at the same time. They are lightweight and easy to maneuver. Also, these are great to use working in raised garden beds. You can get them turned in a tight space.
This is pretty self explanatory. If you are going to “dig in the dirt” you just have to have a shovel. Try to get one that fits you best. I am only 5′ tall and find that many of the shovels have handles that are just too long for me to handle easily. I would recommend going to a local garden center and trying them on for size!
You absolutely must have your ground leveled before you plant your garden. Once you have done your digging or tilling level it out with a rake. This also helps to remove any stones or debris that you may have missed. I recommend this Bully Tools rake. It has a fiberglass handle and steel tines. Besides that, these are Made in America. Talk about a win/win.
5) A set of hand tools:
These should include a cultivator, a weed fork, a transplanter, and a trowel. The cultivator will break up the surface of the garden bed. This will aerate, help in the conservation of moisture and will help control weeds. The weed fork will help by loosening, lifting and turning over the soil in your garden. The transplanter will help you find the correct depth for planting. Garden trowels are used for digging holes for bulbs, small plants, etc. They can also be used in weeding.
Of course you will need something to transport all of your lovely vegetables once your garden is growing. This trug does double duty as a carrier and as a colander to rinse off your veggies.
7)Frost Free Hydrant:
You will need a water source close to your garden. We use frost free hydrants for all of our outdoor watering needs. These are buried to a level below your local frost line. No need to worry about faucets freezing and breaking. Of course you will want to disconnect any hoses in freezing weather. A sprinkling can is a nice tool to have as well.
This is the perfect way to preserve many of your crops. We have owned our 9 shelf dehydrator for about 20 years now. We have tried many different things, some successes, some failures. One thing that I love to dehydrate is strawberries. I cut them in slices (too thin according to my husband). Once they are dehydrated I eat them like candy. And just think how much healthier that is than grabbing a chocolate bar. We have dehydrated bananas (bought on sale, not grown), carrots, parsnips and tomatoes with huge success. We actually take our dehydrated principe borghese (Italian heirloom) tomatoes and grind them in a coffee grinder.
We then put the powder in our tomato sauce to thicken it. Actually for our tomato sauce we just put our tomatoes in our Vitamix and pulse. Failures in dehydrating were eggplant (it just kind of dissolves when you reuse) and zuchinni (it doesn’t really have any taste although we tried salting them and eating them like chips which wasn’t too bad).
9)Gloves, Nail Brush and Lotion:
Ladies, you will probably appreciate this more than the men. I have a tendency not to wear gloves to garden. They just seem to impede me. So, my new best friend is my nail brush. I have come out of the garden too many times with dirt under my nails and gotten some really weird looks. Yeah, I wash my hands, this is honest dirt. Anyway, I find that non gardeners just don’t understand, so to my nail brush I go. Also, nothing will smooth out your hands like Bag Balm. I found this by mistake when I was raising Nubian Goats. I loved my girls and guys. This was an essential for the new mommas. But, as I was smoothing it on them, I found that my dry hands felt really great. They even have it in tubes now. I haven’t tried them yet, but I am going to get some and try it. I have always used the product in the tin.
10)A Garden Cart:
I love working in my garden just as much as the next person. But, there are times when you just need to sit down for a minute. These rolling tractor seats are perfect with their under the seat storage. They are good for picking, planting, weeding or just contemplating life in the garden.
These are my top ten. Of course everyone will find that their own top ten is probably a little bit different. A lot of what you need depends on how you garden. Raised garden beds will have different set of tools than a standard garden bed. Just experiment with different tools until you find the one that works the best for you. The most important thing is to get out there and get digging in the dirt and have fun!
Planning Your Garden
Planning Your Garden. You can’t start too early.
That’s me and my Dad. I doubt if we were doing much planning at that point. Looks like we were just trying to get our shovels in the dirt. Dad is gone, my hair is gray, but he has instilled a lifelong love of gardening in my soul. I have pretty much always had a garden, even at houses where I rented. I had great landlords. I think we should all go out and motivate a child to get started gardening…..today. Yep, let’s do this today. It will be the best gift we could give them. All of that being said, let’s get into the subject of planning a garden.
1) Keep it simple.
If you are just getting started, keep it simple. Don’t burn yourself out with too large of a space. Or, plants that need special care. Stay with the standard veggies that you see in your small hometown grocery store…lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, onions, beans, herbs etc. If you go too big at first and get too many plants with special needs, you are heading for failure. If you are experimenting with new veggies, try a few plants at first. There is no sense having a bumper crop of tomatillos to find out that you don’t like tomatillos. Then what do you do? Throw them out? Give them to your neighbors? Just try one or two plants of new vegetables.
2) Learn Your Zone
This should really be first. It is THE most important piece of knowledge in gardening. This dictates what you can grow and when you should grow it. If you are a first time gardener you will have to learn that carrots and tomatoes grow at different times of year. Learn your zone, learn when to plant. Here is a link to the USDA zones chart.
3) Figure out how many plants you need. If you are going to start your own tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, herbs, etc start them about 6 – 8 weeks before you will plant them in the ground. If you are new to gardening, it is probably a good idea to buy your plants at least the first year. No sense adding an extra layer of stress.
4) Pick your perfect garden spot. This should be an area that has at least 6 – 8 hours of sunlight a day. If you only have a shady spot you will probably not be able to grow some of the crops you want. Make sure that you have enough space to plant the plants that you have calculated that you need.
5) Decide on what type of garden you are going to plant. Are you going with raised beds? Maybe a lasagne garden, maybe vertical gardening, or maybe just a good old fashion dig in the dirt standard garden bed. Maybe you are in a limited space and will need to start with container gardening. They will all work. Just figure out what is best for you.
6) Gather your tools. If you are doing a standard gardening, or even raised garden beds, you will probably need a tiller. We have been using a rear tine tiller for years. They are a lot easier to operate that a front tine tiller. Or, you may have a space small enough that you can dig it up with a good shovel. You will want a rake, a trowel, a hose or irrigation system, a timer for your irrigation, garden trellises or support for your climbing plants. Make sure that you have a water source nearby. You don’t want to be carrying buckets of water to your garden. And, nobody likes to drag water hoses hundreds of feet, especially me. (That is a pet peeve in case you didn’t notice. I can’t stand dragging a water hose behind me.Grrr)
7) Work your soil. You need to work your soil when it is moist, not wet. You want it to be dry enough that it will crumble easily when you squeeze it. Turn it over at least 12″ deep. Add 2 – 3 inches of compost and turn it into your bed. Cover it with a thick layer of natural mulch, or with plastic garden mulch if that is the way you are going to garden. Be sure to put your irrigation system down first if you are using plastic garden mulch. You may want to have your soil tested. To do this you can go to your local extension office and get a container. You then take a sample and return it to them. They will give you a report with recommendations on what amendments you need to add to your soil.
8) Figure out how you are going to use your vegetables. Are you going to only eat fresh? Or, are you going to preserve some vegetables for the winter? We do a lot of preserving, so our garden is way bigger than necessary for 2 people. We can, we dehydrate, we freeze. We keep and use our veggies all year long. I will discuss how we do this in later posts. Or, if you want fresh veggies all of the season you may want to do succession planting. This is waiting a couple of weeks and planting the same crop in a different spot in the garden. Once the first crop gives out you will be harvesting from the new plants. Be sure to allow room for this if you are going to grow this way.
9) Network. Go to the garden shows. See if you can find the booths manned by the Master Gardeners. They will be able to answer all kinds of questions for you. Go to your local extension office. They may have fliers and information for free that you will find useful.
10) Have fun. This is not a do or die situation. It is a learning curve. Remember, we all have our failures. Even seasoned gardeners. I lost all of my zucchini plants last year after harvesting one or two plants. My neighbor lost his also. We still don’t know why this happened. Sometimes things just aren’t going to work. And don’t forget the bugs that are not on your side. This is just part of gardening. When we run into an obstacle we try to overcome it. Don’t let this be a deterrent to you. Get out in the sun and get a garden planted. Your mind and soul will thank you. Not to mention your body being grateful for real honest to goodness food. Get out there and get growing.
Top 10 Reasons to Garden with Raised Beds
10 Raised Garden Benefits
We learned our lesson about raised bed gardening the first year we moved to South Louisiana. It is more of a necessity there, rather than an option. We were so happy. We rented a little house out in the country. We borrowed a tiller. My husband worked the ground. We leveled it, marked our rows and planted our seeds, just like we did it in Ohio. A couple of days later we had a torrential rain. My husband just stood looking out the back door watching all of his hard work being washed out. One of our new neighbors stopped by after the rain ended. He wanted to know when we were going to make our rows. We said here are the stakes and there is the string marking the rows. He was very patient with us. He said “no, your raised rows”. What? We didn’t know anything about that. Instead of just standing there laughing, he went home and got his high wheel cultivator and made the rows (aka hills) for us. We had a bumper crop that year due to his generosity. Of course, even if you live in better drained areas, there are many reasons to choose a raised garden bed over a standard garden space. I have listed just a few of the reasons below.
- Raised Garden Beds typically take less space for the same amount of yield. In other words, you can grow 10 tomato plants in less space in a raised garden bed than they would take being planted in typical garden rows in the ground. Less space used equals less space to maintain.
- Raised garden beds are easier to maintain than a typical garden, due to the smaller space. They are easier to keep weeded. The pathways are easier to maintain.
- You are not walking on your soil, so you are not compacting it. Plants like to be in soil that is light and airy, rather than densely packed soil. Also, you can decorate your walkways in a variety of ways. You can use pavers, ground cover, sand, or a combination of these. You can match your outdoor space by using the same pavers that you have in other areas of your yard.
- I am not a lazy gardener, but I do like to sit on the side of the beds and pick sometimes. It sure makes my back feel better. Plus, I can take a minute and just sit there and enjoy myself.
- You don’t really need a large tiller. We do have a rear tine tiller that we work our soil with occasionally, but we also have a small tiller that is an attachment for our weed eater handle. This is small and makes pretty simple and quick work of tilling a raised bed.
- A raised bed will be easier to fence around if you have rabbits and deer in your yard. I have even seen pictures of small raised bed gardens with fencing over the top of it also. If you have a small dog or puppy, you can raise the bed sides higher to keep them out. Also, if you want to use a cold frame, or season extender over the bed, it is much easier to install and use.
- You can build one on your porch or patio. There are a lot of crops that can be grown in containers, but some of the larger crops just do better in a bed. One I can think of off the top of my head would be a zucchini plant. They sprawl out everywhere.
- Finally, for all of you scavengers out there – this is the perfect place to recycle materials. You may be able to find used lumber, blocks, bricks, etc around your property to build the beds. There is no need to spend a bunch of money on new materials.
- It is easy to install plastic garden mulch over a raised bed. We use a drip irrigation system under the mulch, and we put the irrigation system on a timer. The mulch will help cut down on evaporation. Even in the heat of the summer at 100 degrees we only water for 15 minutes every other day.
- You can garden in a raised bed inside a greenhouse as well as out in nature.
In conclusion, we have been gardening in a raised bed for about 30 years now. We have moved from South Louisiana to North Louisiana. We may be able to get by with a regular garden, but we have just become so used to the raised beds. And, you can see all of the advantages that I have listed above. Even if you decide not to use a raised garden bed, be sure to get something growing in some dirt somewhere.