Given how quickly strawberries begin to bear fruit and how easily they are grown, it's a wonder that strawberry beds aren't as common in backyards as lawns are in front yards.

The most compelling reason to grow strawberries is, of course, flavor.

Variety selection and premature harvest make grocers' berries large and firm, but usually not much else. In your backyard, though, you can grow the most flavorful varieties, and wait to pick them until they're sweet and oozing strawberry-ness. At that point, perishability doesn't matter because the berries need not travel further than arm's length to your mouth or a basket.

KINDS OF STRAWBERRIES

Depending on how soon you want to start eating strawberries, choose between "everbearers" and "junebearers."

Everbearers offer the quickest crops, less than three months after planting, and bear all season long. Tristar is among the best of these types. Some of the older types bear in spring and fall only.

Junebearers come in greater variety and yield more, but wait to bear their first crop until the year after planting. Once started, they bear once per season, in spring or early summer. Planting two or more different junebearing varieties can extend the harvest.

GROWING STRAWBERRIES

Spring is a good time to plant strawberries, although they can also be planted in late summer or fall — if you can get plants then.

Your new plants may look forlorn, but don't worry. They soon grow new roots and leaves. In fact, you can shear their roots back to 3 or 4 inches long with a scissors so you can more easily fan them out in the planting hole. Adjust the planting depth carefully, leaving only the top half-inch of the crown exposed so that it neither dries out from exposure nor suffocates from burial.

Ever wonder how such a luscious fruit came to be called "strawberry"? The name might reflect the plants' habit of strewing about with runners, which are horizontal stems punctuated along their length by daughter plants. The daughter plants eventually root and make their own runners.

The name "strawberry" might also come from a centuries-old favorite mulch for strawberries: straw. No matter how the strawberry got its name, the plants love to be mulched. Mulch keeps the soil moist, suppresses weeds and keeps the fruit cleaner. Give strawberries a year-round, organic mulch.

ADOPT A PLANTING SYSTEM

Spacing for strawberry plants depends on your method of growing them.

With the "hill system," you plant them close together — 9 inches apart in a double row, with 9 inches between rows — and avoid future crowding by pinching off all runners. More plants are needed to get started, but initial yields are highest. This system is especially suited to those junebearing varieties that naturally develop fewer runners, and to everbearers.

With the "matted row system," you set plants at wide spacing — 24 inches apart in single rows, with 4 feet between rows — and allow plants to make runners like crazy. Fewer plants are needed to get started, but the first crop is smaller than with the hill system.

Never allow the mat of mother and daughter plants to spread wider than 18 inches, and periodically thin out crowded plants.

No matter which system you adopt, pinch off all flowers that appear during the month after planting in order to coax plants to put their energy into growing strong roots. One advantage of everbearers is that they continue to flower after that month of pinching, which means you get to pick fruits later this season from this spring's planting!

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