Growing Strawberries in Austin

Yes, You Can Grow Strawberries In Austin

Growing strawberries in Austin can be done successfully in home gardens with the right growing conditions. Strawberries thrive in a well drained soil and are especially well adapted to slightly acidic sandy loams. While this limits their commercial production potential in most Travis County soils, few fruits can compete with them in terms of flavor and productivity. Each plant is a hardworking miniature sugar factory capable of producing one or more pints of fruit every spring. Strawberries are high in vitamin C and despite their delightfully sweet flavor weigh in at only 50 calories per cup!

Festival Strawberry - A Texas Superstar - Growing Strawberries in Austin

Texas Superstar Strawberry ‘Festival’

Strawberry species are found throughout much of the world. Our modern day varieties are actually a chance cross between two species, the meadow strawberry native to eastern North America and the beach strawberry from the west coast of South America. It seems that each of these species found its way across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe where they were planted in close proximity in some French gardens. The vigorous, productive seedlings that developed were the forerunners of our American varieties.

Site selection and preparation

The first key to being successful at growing strawberries in Austin is to select a sunny location. Strawberries can take some shade but production will become progressively less as you move from full sun to part shade. You need a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight for best results.

The second key is to plant them in an area where the soil is light and well drained. Heavy clay soils will result in poor growth, chlorotic plants and significant loss from crown and root rot diseases. Most area gardeners in Travis County do not have ideal soil conditions. We recommend you build a raised bed and fill it with a store bought blend of sandy topsoil and finely screened compost. Avoid chunky landscape blends as they tend to have excessive air space and are not as well suited to the shallow rooted plants.

Strawberry bed mix
2 parts bank sand or builder’s sand
1 part peat or finely screened compost
1 part loam topsoil

If drainage is poor, raised beds are especially important. A small, well constructed 4′ X 8′ bed can produce a nice harvest of strawberries and is not that difficult or expensive to build. Once the bed is built it can be used for other crops during the summer and replanted to strawberries the following fall.

An alternative to a bordered bed is to build raised rows 8-10 inches high and 18 inches wide on top. Space rows about 42 inches apart. Container culture is another option for gardeners lacking space or sunlight, because containers can be moved to a sunny location.

A soil test is your best guide to determine which nutrients should be added prior to planting. In the absence of a soil test, apply 1 cup of an organic 4-1-2 or 3-1-2 ratio product, OR 1/2 cup of a synthetic product with the same ratio of nutrients per 25 square feet of soil surface area and mix it in well prior to planting.

Planting systems – Treat Strawberries As An Annual

There are two basic systems of planting strawberries, the perennial matted row system and the annual system.

In the traditional matted row planting system, plants are set out and allowed to send out runners over the season to form a dense and wide row of plants. After the spring harvest period ends the row is narrowed by rototilling it down to a narrow strip. The plants then send out new runners continuing the cycle. This system is not recommended for central Texas as it is significantly less productive than the annual system, ties up the garden space year round, and requires months of watering, weed control, and dealing with pests and diseases.

The “annual” system is the system of choice for warmer areas of the south if you are growing strawberries in Austin and central Texas. Plants are set 12 inches apart in a staggered double or triple row from mid September to early November, carried through the winter, harvested in spring (primarily late February through early May), and then plowed under. This leaves the area available for a productive summer garden. Weeds, diseases and pests are minimized and yields can be very high.

Strawberry Annual Planting System - Growing Strawberries in Austin

Stagger plants for best results

Strawberry plants should be set at the same depth they grew in the nursery (mid-point of the crown). This planting depth is very important. Planting too shallow or too deep will give poor performance and possible loss of plants.

Strawberry Planting Depth - Growing Strawberries in Austin

Set plants into the soil mid-point of the crown

Water the plants well immediately after planting. While drip irrigation is the best choice for watering established plants, during this establishment phase use a sprinkler to wet a larger area and to wet the foliage. This reduces transplant shock. Continue to water them lightly twice a day for a week to keep the tops moist. Then gradually wean them back to one or two sprinklings a week over the next month or so. Many plants are lost or severely set back during the first few days and weeks after planting if they are allowed to dry out. After they have been in a month they’ll have enough roots for the drip irrigation to take over. Discontinue the sprinkler irrigation since the frequent wetting will increase the incidence of diseases.

A major advantage of the annual system is that plants need not be pampered through the hot, dry, weedy, summer months. Dormant plants from cold storage are used in September planting, while dormant fresh dug plants are used in October-November planting. Occasionally plugs, which are runner tips rooted in transplant trays may be found for sale.

Care and Feeding

Keep the soil moist but not soggy. Fertilize every few weeks in small doses with an organic or synthetic liquid fertilizer to maintain good health and vigor. While strawberries are very hardy in our mild central Texas winters it pays to cover them with a frost blanket on freezing nights. Some growers leave a lighter weight rowcover fabric on the plants for extended periods during the winter months. The slightly warmer conditions beneath the rowcover will speed up growth. Remove the rowcover in February so bees can get to the plants to pollinate the blooms but be ready to put it back on when frost is forecast.

Recommended Varieties for Travis County

Strawberries are divided into three basic groups:  spring bearing, everbearing, and day-neutral. The essential difference between these three groups is the day length conditions when flower buds are initiated in the crown of the plant.

Spring bearing cultivars initiate flower buds in the fall and winter months (for the following spring’s crop) when the day length is relatively short, about 12 hours. Everbearing cultivars initiate flower buds as the spring bearers, but also initiate buds for a fall crop.

Day-neutral cultivars can initiate flower buds during any day length. Flower buds will continue to develop as long as the temperatures are not too hot or too cold.

The problem with the old everbearing types and the new day-neutrals is that they produce lower yield overall than spring bearers, and most suffer greatly in the Texas heat. In time, new cultivars may emerge which will prove to be dependable producers in our area. Until then, they are not recommended.

Plants can be difficult to find in local garden centers during the fall season, and may have to be mail ordered.

The following spring bearing berries are recommended for Travis County.

Variety Evaluated by Texas A&M Plant Trials? Description
Chandler Y Vigorous, productive plant with large to medium-sized fruit. The berries are conical to wedge shaped with medium, red, glossy finish. The fruit quality is excellent, and produces high yields.
Festival Y Acceptable yields of firm, attractive, and flavorful fruit. Selected as a “Texas Superstar” plant.
Sequoia N Very adaptable variety that has been around a long time. Production is similar to the varieties above though fruit is smaller. This variety produces a deep red color signaling that it is ripe. An ideal home garden variety, the berry turns from firm to soft when it is ready to be picked.
Benicia Y Mild flavor and excellent shape. It has good early potential for yield
Camino Real Y Similar to ‘Camarosa’ but later in production and berries are externally and internally darker.
Camarosa Y It is widely adapted to many growing regions. It has larger and firmer fruit than ‘Chandler’. Berries are very flat and conical.
Douglas Y Was the leading commercial variety in Texas prior to ‘Chandler’. It is a versatile plant that produces good crops of quality fruit, which are a bit smaller than ‘Chandler’ and typically has nice amber-yellow achenes.
Oso Grande Y Very large, firm berry with high yields. Fruit color and flavor tend to be variable, but fruit are usually conic to wedge shaped with a distinctively rounded tip.
Radiance Y Large conical berries early in the fall and even during the winter months. However, plants may be susceptible to damage in high wind regions, and can be susceptible to crown rots.
Seascape Y Produces a more vigorous plant with darker foliage than ‘Chandler’; production is a bit less, but it has larger fruit. The vigorous plants are virus resistant and thrive in a wide range of growing conditions. The bright red fruit are firm, conical, and have an attractive glossy finish with excellent flavor.

For more information on varieties, download the free electronic version of Production Guide For Texas Grown Strawberries from the AgriLife bookstore.

Pests

A number of insects, diseases and animals (four legged and two legged!) attack strawberries. Planting healthy, disease-free plants is the first step to avoiding a host of problems. Leaf spots can be a problem especially following rainy weather, while there are sprays to combat these diseases damage is usually not significant enough to warrant spraying. In the annual planting system, leaf spot problems usually do not have time to reach levels warranting spraying. Fruit rots are a significant problem during wet weather. Since strawberries ripen from February to May in our area, wet conditions are quite prevalent during harvest. Plastic mulch and discarding affected fruit promptly after a rain can reduce the incidence of these diseases.

Mites can quickly build up to damaging numbers on strawberries. Because they feed on the underside of leaves, it is difficult to direct sprays to reach them. Once again in the annual system the cool weather from planting to harvest greatly diminishes mite problems. When their numbers do build up the season is usually about over and sprays are unnecessary.

Birds love strawberries as much as you do. To add insult to injury, they prefer to take a sample peck out of a fruit and leave you the rest! Unless you have a very hard working, cooperative cat (an oxymoron), birds will be difficult to control. Scare tactics like pie tins, streamers, etc. work for awhile but soon become just part of the scenery. Some gardeners have had good results by stretching monofilament fishing line over the patch in a crosshatched pattern. The lines are strung about 1 foot above the ground, greatly disturbing incoming birds which have difficulty seeing them. Try it and see if it works for you.

Alternatives to the “Strawberry Patch”

Strawberries make excellent groundcover plants for borders and flower beds. Almost anyplace with good drainage that receives good sunlight will do. Just remember that they are picky about what type of soil they want.

Strawberry can also be grown in containers such as flower pots, half whiskey barrels, and barrels require less space than terraced beds. Containers should be at least 4 or 5 gallons in size or growth and production will be minimal and the need for frequent watering greatly increased.

Special terra cotta planters know as strawberry pots are also available. They have been designed with holes around the sides for planting strawberries. However the small soil volume seldom produces many berries. These containers dry out quickly and must be watered daily, especially during warm weather.

You Can Do This

Growing strawberries in Austin requires some additional effort to prepare the soil and you’ll have to replant every year. But after one bite, it’s totally worth it.

Additional Fruit and Nut Resources

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