Making Low Labor Perennial Strawberry Production A Reality
A very wise person once said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I often wonder if we do not have enough necessity in these times or have lost our sense of creativity to help solve problems. In our case, growing strawberries at our age, using the conventional wisdom of traditional, established matted row methods had become just too much hard work for us. Also, after several years of trying, we found that our climate is just too cold at this elevation for profitable annual plasticulture strawberry production, much as we liked the system that works so well south and east of us in warmer areas. So, 10 years ago we swore off strawberry growing, but our farmers market vendors who pick here have had no other source of locally produced strawberries for their customers.
Last year, we finally gave in to the idea of growing strawberries for these vendors, but not the bigger acreage that would be needed for a starved U-pick strawberry public still fussing because we gave it up a decade ago. This would have to be, by necessity, a production system that is sustainable for us older folks and for our hilly, erodible land. Except for pre-plant soil preparation, it would need to be a no-till system except for minimum tillage only at annual renovation/plant and row thinning. This system also, we vowed, would use no hand weeding and no soil-disturbing cultivation, only careful use of herbicides before and after planting. Always loving a challenge, we knew that this would be a good one.
We ordered certified disease-free nursery plants, Earliglow and Allstar, a year in advance for planting early this past spring. Late last summer we had used post-emergence weed/grass herbicide to kill vegetation, including perennial weeds and grasses, at the single row sites. There would be one row of strawberries planted in the center of each of several 10-foot wide row centers in young, non-bearing blueberry fields. Before planting in late March, we applied Prowl (pendimethalin, BASF) herbicide at the rate of two pints per acre plus Sinbar (terbaril, DuPont Crop Protection) at the rate of 6 ounces per acre, tank mixed and sprayed in a 3-foot wide band over each row site after first rotavator tillage. Then the sprayed herbicides were incorporated into the upper topsoil by shallow rotavator tillage. We installed a single line of drip irrigation tubing beside each planted row, but abundant rains of spring and summer kept us from having to use it.
Growing fine with our “benign neglect” system, the early summer berry plants’ growth was good, including early runner production and rooting. We were also pleased with the fairly good weed and grass control over the first couple of months following the pre-plant herbicides soil application before planting. Finally this past summer, continuing rains promoted very abundant growth of new weeds and grass along with the strawberry plants. We ignored them all, busy with our U-pick blueberries and blackberries and tending the late summer Primocane red and golden raspberries and our seedless grapes.
Finally, in late July, I mowed the weeds “down” to the tops of the strawberry plants using a rear-mounted tractor rotary mower set several inches high using the hydraulic lift to keep it above the berry plants. Then I sprayed a 3-foot band of post-emergence grass herbicide followed one week later with a similar over-the-row band spray of Stinger (clopyralid, Dow AgroSciences) post-emergent broadleaf weeds herbicide at a strawberry-labeled rate. A month later I sprayed a similar over-the-row band using Ultra Blazer (acifluorfen, UPI) post-emergent broadleaf weeds herbicide at the strawberry-labeled rate. At this writing in late September, we are very pleased with our no-hoe, no-hand weeding, no cultivation strawberry rows. Come late December, I plan to spray strawberry-labeled Chateau (flumioxazin, Valent U.S.A.) herbicide for late winter and spring preemergence weed and grass herbicide on these fully dormant plants, then apply straw mulch over and around each row.
Just before the berry plants wake up next spring, a light application of Sinbar herbicide may be sprayed over the plant rows for preemergent weed/grass control.
So there’s what has worked for us so far. The best part for us: We have nice looking rows of strawberry plants with no hand work since planting. Even then, a single-row mechanical finger-type transplanter on the three-point hitch of the tractor really takes the backache out of planting compared to planting by hand. There are many folks who might shy away from such an herbicide-dependent production system, fearing they would be killing off valuable earthworms and beneficial soil microbes. Turning over several shovels of soil by these berry rows in September revealed plenty of fat, healthy earthworms, perhaps even more than if we had cultivated and hoed their habitat time after time. Soil microbial growth should be enhanced by the application of straw mulch in late December, providing them an abundant source of organic residue to digest every year of the planting, hopefully three to five years.