Strawberries are a crop that is planted once a year, in the fall, and harvested the following spring. At Terra Firma, we traditionally plant on or around September 1st, give or take a week depending on the weather. But this year we started Monday the 12th and are just finishing today, making it the latest ever we’ve gotten the berries in the ground.
It’s a labor intensive job. We use some type of planter for every other crop we grow, whether a seeder or a transplanter, but the berries are planted by hand. This is true not just on our farm, but for the entire strawberry industry.
Strawberries are perennial crops that don’t produce fruit until the second year. The nurseries grow them for a year in “nursery fields”, then dig them up with harvesters that separate the soil from the roots. Finally, they store them in freezers for 6 months to fool them into going into hiberation so farmers can plant them as annual crops.
At Terra Firma, we make sure to provide the Strawberries with the best possible home. In June, we plant a summer cover crop of legumes, then we graze it with sheep in August before preparing the soil and ensuring it is free of clods. We cover the strawberry beds with plastic mulch before planting, installing drip irrigation underneath it. This way, we can keep the beds moist and weed free while keeping the fruit from touching the soil. Then we soak the ground under the plastic for several days to ensure the soil is soft and pliable for planting. Finally, we puncture holes in the plastic with a machine that makes deep divots into the soil. The rest is done by hand.
We receive boxes from the nursery full of “crowns” — a mass of roots with the leaves removed and just a small part of the above-ground plant intact. They must be “set” carefully into the ground with that portion above ground but all the roots covered with soil. The planting crew lays out the berry crowns one by one on the plastic, while others come behind them pressing the roots into the divots and carefully firming the soil around them — taking care not to bury the growth point where the new leaves will emerge. Once the crowns are planted, we soak them again to ensure the roots stay moist.
There’s several reasons we can’t plant the berries during a heatwave: it’s a physically difficult job even when it’s not hot, and the crowns are fragile and prone to drying out. We can’t rush them in before a heatwave, either, because the tender new shoots will get cooked in the hot sun when they emerge a few days after planting. Too much wind also causes problems.
Instead, we wait for a decent window of nice weather and hope the forecast verifies. There have been years where it hasn’t, but this week’s weather is about the best we’ve ever had for the job. We may even get some rain on Sunday, which I am sure the tiny plants would enjoy greatly. It’s an amazing contrast to last week’s hellish heat, which surely would have damaged or killed the berries we had planted them before it.
Hopefully it’s an auspicious start to the 2023 strawberry season.