This is the first of my new monthly series, about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate. I’ll talk about planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. I’ll have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month. We do grow apples and pears, and some other tree fruit, but I’m not writing about those as I don’t have much recent experience.
Strawberries are the focus fruit for May
May is the month in our climate, to harvest and weed strawberries. Actually weeding strawberries in bare soil is a job that needs doing once a month from February to November here! We don’t have any strawberries in our gardens this year. Once upon a time, we grew matted rows, where you keep the same bed in production for multiple years, removing the oldest plants to make space for younger more vigorous plants. Weeds were our downfall. Once you let weeds seed in a strawberry bed, you have lost the battle. In our climate, we have cold-weather weeds and warm weather weeds. Semi-permanent strawberry beds get them all. I wouldn’t choose this method again.
See ATTRA Strawberries: Organic Production available free online, for a wealth of information. Updated April 2021.
I recommend harvesting three days a week, in the mornings, once the dew has dried, to avoid spreading fungal diseases. Use shallow containers, although strawberries don’t crush as easily as raspberries. Turn each ripe-looking strawberry over to make sure it’s ripe underneath too. We will harvest with white tips, but not green. Commercial strawberries that will travel long distance are harvested ¼ green and arrive very red, but with not much flavor.
Nip through the stem of the fruit with your nails and set the fruit in the container. Also, now or preferably separately, collect up any moldy or bird-bitten fruits to compost. It’s better not to handle healthy plants after moldy fruit, but if you have dry weather and not many moldy ones, it’s very tempting to remove them as you go. When “Mouseberry”, our nickname for Botrytis grey mold, is only a minor problem, we just hurl each one as far from the strawberry bed as we can, rather than collect them up.
Unblemished strawberries can be stored for several days in the refrigerator. Do not wash before refrigerating, as this leads to rot. If you are planning to process lots of strawberries for drying, jam, juice or other value-added products, I recommend finding a simple little tool, a pair of round-ended tweezers about 2” (5 cm) long and ½” (1 cm) across. You can twist our the green tops quickly with minimal wastage.
When to plant strawberries
In case you don’t yet have strawberries, and now wish you did, here are some considerations about when to plant. Many gardening books are written in more northerly climates, where bare-root transplants are set out in early spring. But then it is necessary to pinch off the flowers the first year. And still weed once a month! We found it better here to plan for September planting of runners we had potted up in July, leaving them attached to their mother plants until time to make the new bed. They are less likely to die if still attached to the well-rooted mother plant. Fall-planted strawberries do not need to have the flowers removed in their first spring. It is not easy to find bare-root transplants to buy in the fall.
In Virginia, many commercial growers plant new strawberries on plastic mulch every year, buying in plugs. The costs are covered by the high price that strawberries bring in when sold. We were not selling, but feeding our intentional community. This means that produce that would get high prices doesn’t repay us for the time spent. We need nutrients for a well-balanced diet, not fancy stuff. This issue also came up for us when we grew ginger in our hoophouse. Tasty and enjoyable, but not lots of food for the space and time.
As a balance, we settled on keeping two beds (one early variety, one late) for two years each, using landscape fabric with holes melted in it. Each year we would make 1 new patch, till in the older one after 2 harvests. Some years we bought plants, and we also figured out a good propagation method, which gave us plants when we needed them, without too much money or labor. We had backup plans in case we failed to propagate enough replacements.
In early June we’d prepare new beds if going for bare-root plants; after fruiting we’d dismantle the two-year-old bed, renovate the one-year-old bed, and in early July prepare the new bed if using plugs. We did the propagation of our own plugs during July, setting up a misting tent. We planted the new plugs in early August. I’ll go into detail about these tasks when we get to that time of year.
Some varieties are patented and it is illegal to propagate your own without permission from the patent holder. It’s most illegal to sell plants you have propagated from a patented variety. Technically, it is also illegal to propagate for you own use, and even to let strawberry runners root themselves beside a mother plant. Not all varieties are patented. Cornell has a page Patent Status of Select Strawberry Varieties with info for varieties that do well in NY State. It includes when patents expire. StrawberryPlants.org has a lot of information, including an interactive variety list. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include info on which are patented.
Climate change, challenges and options
Our climate is variable, and is changing to more of all extremes, so we need to change our systems to meet the challenges. It always helps to have a plan B.
Fruit still available in May
Rhubarb can be harvested until the stems get too thin. April is its main month here in central Virginia. Weed and water. Lop off any flower heads or buds, to concentrate energy into the stems.
Other fruit care in May
Install blueberry netting before the fruit sets, so the birds will have no reason to be interested. Weed, water, top up mulch, as needed. Check periodically to ensure the netting has no holes.
Grapes: Mow, weed, water in drought. Mow aisles as needed. New vines: remove side branches from trunks, and fruitlets. I like to walk through in May to record the condition of the grape vines.