Growing Strawberries in Small Spaces
By: Charlie Nardozzi
Strawberries have the reputation of needing lots of room to grow, but often they can fit in small beds or container.
June bearing strawberries produce runners and lots of berries. They grow best in raised beds where they have room to spread.
Strawberries have a reputation for being hard to grow and requiring lots of space. Many gardeners have an image from ″pick your own″ strawberry farms of rows and rows of strawberry plantings. It's easy to think that's what you need to get a crop.
But strawberries don't require lots of room to grow and in fact, they can thrive in small pots and planters sited on a deck or patio. You don't need large raised beds or a farmer to grow them successfully in your yard. For gardeners battling deer, chipmunks, and other critters in their strawberry patch, growing in containers or protected raised beds is a way to ensure you get the crop and not the animals.
Let's take a look at all the different ways you can grow strawberries in small spaces to have a successful crop.
There are four different types of strawberries you can grow. June-bearing strawberries such as 'Earliglow', 'Jewel,' and 'Cabot' are the most common. They produce in early summer and send out runners freely, quickly filling in a bed with their daughter plants. These grow best in raised beds where they have room to roam.
Day-neutral strawberry varieties such as 'Evie,' 'Albion,' and 'Seascape' produce small crops of berries in cycles all season long. They don't send out as many runners as June-bearers, so are well-suited to hanging baskets, large containers, and strawberry jars. Everbearing varieties, such as 'Tribute' and 'Tristar', produce a spring and late summer crop with little production in between. They also have fewer runners than June bearers.
Alpine strawberries such as 'Mignonette,' Rugen Improved,' and 'Yellow Wonder' (yellow fruited variety) are improved versions of the wild strawberry. They produce small, sweet tasting fruits from spring until fall. The plants are bushy and diminutive but do spread slowly over time. They are great grown in baskets, containers, or in front of a flower or herb bed. Sometimes found in garden centers and on-line, you'll be able to grow a wider variety of alpine strawberries if you grow them from seed. Unlike other strawberries, alpine varieties grow well and produce in part shade, especially in warm climates.
If you have the space, the easiest way to grow strawberries is in a raised bed located close to your home. Site the bed in full sun on well drained soil close to a water source. If you're in an urban area and the soil is poor or potentially contaminated with lead or other chemicals, consider bringing in topsoil and compost to form the bed on top of the existing soil. Use landscape fabric underneath the bed to keep any contaminants from leaching into the new soil.
Line the sides of your raised bed with rot resistant woods, such as cedar or hemlock, stone, bricks, or composite woods. Build the bed so it's at least 8 inches tall and no more than 3 feet wide. Fill the bed with a mix of two-thirds topsoil and one-third compost. Plant June bearing varieties 12- to 18-inches apart in the bed. Plant day neutral, everbearing, and alpine varieties 8- to 12-inches apart. If you're planting June bearers, pick off the flowers the first year so they put more energy into producing roots and shoots. You'll be rewarded with a larger harvest in subsequent years. For day neutral, everbearers, and alpine strawberries, prune off flowers until the beginning of July and then let them set fruit.
Strawberry flowers need pollination from bees to set fruit. Attract bees to your small space strawberry patch by growing spring blooming flowers.
Alpine strawberries produce sweet tasting, small fruits on little bushy plants. They produce all season and can be grown in containers or the front of a small bed.
Strawberries are very adaptable to container growing. The rule of thumb is the bigger, the better with containers. Half-whiskey barrels or 16- to 18-inch diameter containers are great, especially for June bearing varieties. However, since strawberries are shallow rooted, the large container doesn't have to be completely filled with potting soil. Consider filling the bottom third of the container with empty plastic soda bottles, cans, or water jugs. Cover them with landscape fabric and them fill the rest of the container with potting soil. This will save on potting soil and make for a lighter weight container. It will be easier to move your container around the deck or yard to catch the best sunlight during the growing season and to protect it from harsh weather, such as thunderstorms, windstorms, or frost.
Plant June bearing and everbearing varieties along the container edge so the fruits will hang off the lip of the container and make more room for plants in the center.
Boxes, Baskets, and Jars
If you don't have room for a large container, strawberries are well adapted to growing in hanging baskets, window boxes, and strawberry jars. I've even seen them growing in topsy-turvy, upside down tomato planters successfully. Select day neutral or alpine varieties to grow. Use a coir or peat moss-lined hanging basket or self watering baskets, and position the plants closer together than they would be in the ground. A 12-inch diameter hanging basket can probably accommodate 3 to 5 plants. In window boxes, position plants 6 inches apart. Strawberry jars require one plant per hole.
Growing Your Plants in Containers
The biggest drawback to growing in small containers is the lack of soil mass, fertility, and water. Consider placing water absorbing crystals in the soil, using drip irrigation or soaker hoses set on timers to ensure adequate water all season long. Fertilize every other week with a weak solution of a soluble organic fertilizer, especially when the plants are flowering and fruiting. Protect plants from strong winds that could blow the pots over.
In winter in cold areas, move the strawberry containers into a protected location such as a garage or basement. You may need to thin out the plantings, especially of the June bearers, the second and each subsequent years to prevent overcrowding. Add a fresh layer of compost each spring to large containers, and repot hanging baskets and window boxes with fresh soil. Your strawberries should bear fruit for years.