Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; firstname.lastname@example.org
The next 10 days are the optimum period for planting strawberries in the plasticulture system. In particular, the variety Chandler, which has the most acreage in our region, is very sensitive to planting date. For highest yields, Chandler should be planted by September 20. Sweet Charlie and Camarosa should be planted 7-10 days earlier than Chandler for best yields. Day neutral varieties such as Albion, San Andreas, or Monterrey are less sensitive to planting date but should be planted by the third week in September for the best early spring yields.
Strawberry establishment in the plastic bed takes 3-4 weeks. During establishment, the goal is to have plants root as quickly as possible in the soil and start to send out new growth. This requires attention at planting. Most Delmarva growers are using plugs. Plant so that the plug is at the level of the soil or is just covered with a small amount (1/8”) of soil but avoid getting soil into the crown of the plant. Deep planting will result in reduced stands and weak plants due to rotting in the crown area. Shallow planting (where part of the plug is out of the ground) will result in plugs desiccating and reduced stands. Soil should be firm around the plug and water provided at planting. It may be advantageous to overhead irrigate several times, even with water provided by drip lines, to reduce plant shock. It is also hard to wet beds completely with the drip system in sandy soils thus affecting establishment.
Rooting also requires adequate bed soil temperature. Raise high beds, the higher the better to allow for good drainage. Lay plastic making sure there is a firm crowned bed. The goal is to have the plastic tight against the soil to allow for good heat transfer. Loose plastic will have poor heat transfer and can reduce fall growth. Beds with depressions that allow water to accumulate can lead to disease problems in strawberries.
The goal coming out of the establishment period is to have 3 or more fully green leaves on the plant. If you have less than this, spring yields will be lowered. After establishment, plants will send out new growth and develop branch crowns during October and November. The goal by late fall is to have 2 branch crowns form from the mother plant. Crown growth occurs when temperatures are above 50°F. Flower buds are also initiated during this time. Often, growers receive plugs or plants later than September 20. For later plantings, low tunnels offer an opportunity to maintain temperatures above 50°F for a longer period achieving this goal. Early row covers may also be used to achieve this goal – research has shown that early row covers may not increase crown number but can increase flower bud production initiation in the fall. While planting too late can reduce yields, planting too early risks too many crowns being developed, especially in Chandler, leading to smaller unmarketable berries (Sweet Charlie and Camarosa are less prone to this problem). That is why we don’t plant in late August.
Plant size in the fall is also critical for high yields the following spring. Plants should be about 8 inches in diameter going into winter. Sugars produced in leaves are translocated into the crowns of the plant where they are converted into starch for winter storage. This starch is then used in the spring at greenup. Inadequate starch storage will also lead to lower yields in the spring. Plants should also go into winter with enough leaves to help insulate the crown.