Strawberries in May (cont)
By: Paul Bush
Water Twice Until Spring
After planting and one or two waterings, nothing is done until spring, other than rolling down the sides of the tunnel in late October, and opening them again in early April. In February, as the days get longer, the strawberries start growing again. By late March, flowers appear. "You have to protect those flowers from frost, so cover the plants with a row cover," says Wells.
"Strawberries are wind pollinated, but there's little or no wind in the hoop houses," says Wells. Pollinating insects can't be relied on either, so he uses a leaf blower to circulate the pollen. In the hoop houses, pests are not a problem, but incomplete pollination is. On warm and w days, Wells rolls up the sides of the hoop house, allowing wind pollination.
Fertilize and Harvest
To keep the strawbery hoop house plants healthy and growing fast, Wells applies fertilizer in late April or early May. He recommends a water-soluble fertilizer with 15 percent nitrogen, diluted at the rate of 2 tablespoons per gallon. Soak the roots of each plant with this solution to ensure good growth throughout the harvest season.
After harvest, Wells pulls most of the plants out so that he can start fresh in the fall. "We've tried to grow plants for two years. The yield falls to less than half of what it was the first year," notes Wells. He leaves just enough plants to produce runners in summer. He roots those in mid- to late August then plants them in October.
Once you have a supply of 'Chandler' plants, it's easy to grow plugs. Cut off "daughter" plants, the tiny plants that form on runners. Set them into a 50/50 peat moss-vermiculite soil mix and place them in a bright, humid location until roots form. A misting chamber in full sunlight is ideal.
"The cost of growing strawberries this way is about $1.25 per square foot," says Wells. "And this includes time and every other detail, including the cost of the hoop house." Each square foot yields 2 pounds of strawberries, valued at approximately $4 to $5. That's a $2.75 to $3.75 profit per square foot!
Hoop houses are available in a range of lengths and for different prices. "A serious home gardener should look at buying a ready-made system. It's so much simpler. If you make something out of PVC and get a foot of heavy, wet snow, chances are it will collapse."
Besides cost savings, Wells sees the benefits of the system another way. "Last year I bought a pint of out-of-region strawberries and compared them with ours. They tasted like rubber, and ours were fresh and tasty."