Strawberries are in season now around Wayne County! Local growers have been busy harvesting and selling strawberries.
North Carolina is a leading producer of strawberries with the state ranking third in the nation for strawberry production. North Carolina has around 1,600 acres of strawberries grown with a farm income value of $29.4 million (2012, USDA). Our Old North State is unique in that almost all of the strawberries grown here are sold for fresh market directly to consumers as pick-your-own, farm stands or local supermarket chains.
Strawberries are perennial plants, but are grown as annuals with a harvest only seven to eight months after planting and new plants set out each year.
Strawberry growers typically start in the fall of the year setting plants into black plastic (plasticulture). Drip tape is laid under the plastic at the time of planting and used to irrigate and fertilize plants. The plants will grow during the winter, especially during warmer periods in the fall and winter. In late winter and early spring, strawberry plants really begin to grow and start flowering.
Late spring frost and freezes can be a big challenge for strawberry growers to protect plants, flowers and developing fruit. Growers can use row covers which are blankets of thin polyester that insulate the plants. Overhead irrigation can also be used by continuously spraying water on plants creating a film of ice on plants and insulates them. Overhead irrigation has to run continuously while temperatures are at and below freezing to keep a layer of ice on plants leading to long hours and all-nighters for growers checking temperatures and equipment.
The harvest of strawberries generally starts in early to mid-April and, depending on the weather, goes into May. Cool spring weather can prolong the season, while hot weather, especially in May slows it down.
Homeowners can grow their own strawberries but use a different method and planting schedule. A matted row method is recommended for homeowners.
Plants are set out instead in the spring or early summer on bare ground. Plants are allowed to send out runners to create a wider, matted row. The first crop of strawberries comes about a year after planting. Plants will produce strawberries for three to five years and are then replanted and started over.
So as we welcome in spring, be sure to support our local strawberry growers and enjoy some fresh strawberries soon. There are many local farms, roadside produce stands, grocery stores, and the Farm Credit Farmers Market offering locally grown strawberries this season.
Jessica Strickland is an agriculture extension agent, specializing in horticulture for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wayne County.
Try the tasty recipe that goes with this column here.