When I was four, my father tried to grow strawberries in our backyard. It was not a success. First, my mother discovered a snake slithering through the patch and I watched in horror as she chopped it into pieces with a garden hoe. I’m surprised that her panic didn’t end this operation right then and there. Instead, a grass fire—purposely started by a neighbor with good horticultural intentions— permanently terminated this adventure. While I don’t recall the blaze—and I’m sure I would have if fire trucks had been involved— I do remember learning the word “conflagration.”
Did these misfortunes make me afraid to grow strawberries? No, but ever since I moved to Charleston, I’ve been so baffled about how to grow them down here that I finally threw in the trowel. No matter how many times I reread academic directives to plant in autumn, not once did I return home from a garden center in October with a single strawberry plant. “They are not available until spring,” they’d always say. And if I politely pointed out that university sources recommend planting strawberries about a month after the autumnal equinox, I’d receive a silent “you-stupid- Yankee” stare from an exasperated employee. I began to suspect that strawberries were not meant to grow in coastal South Carolina—although no one wanted to admit it. Perhaps those strawberry jars nestled in garden store corners were simply part of the ruse.
But this was before I stood in the middle of 12 verdant acres of strawberry plants at Boone Hall Farms (boonehallfarms.com), located north of Mount Pleasant, one sunny February afternoon. Thanks to the kindness of Jadie Rayfield, Boone Hall Farms’ director of operations, and farm foreman and strawberry expert Erik Hernandez, I was guided through the specifics of growing strawberries in the Lowcountry. And, yes, their strawberries are planted in October but, alas, home gardeners must wait to plant in spring.
It turns out that commercial versus home gardening timing differences are directly related to plant availabilities. While enterprises like Boone Hall Farms have access to fall-growing berries, the autumn market for amateurs is nearly nonexistent. Cultivar choices for home gardening, especially for Southerners, are slim to begin with because plant breeders prefer to support commercial enterprises instead of niche markets like home gardening. Plus, strawberries grown below the Mason-Dixon Line must also put up with intense heat and humidity, further limiting choices. However, thanks to the strawberry research at the University of California, two cultivars are suited to the South Carolina coast, and Boone Hall Farms grows both: Camarosa and Camino Real. (For readers who already enjoy or are curious about Boone Hall Farms’ yearly u-pick public offerings, Camarosa is ready to harvest when the entire fruit is red, while Camino Real continues to sport a white spot around the stem when fully ripe. However, unlike many strawberries sold at supermarkets, Camino Real’s white part is very sweet.)
While Camarosa and Camino Real plants are unavailable to home gardeners, don’t assume that we’re completely shut out. Although cultivar selections are always sparse, horticulturalist Sarah Petrowski at Hyams Garden & Accent Store (hyamsgarden center.com) says that a variety named “Strawberry Delizz F1” is available this spring.
“Delizz” is an All-America Selections winner and the first strawberry cultivar in AAS’s 84-year history to win this distinction. When grown in full sun (six to eight hours; preferably starting out in morning sun), kept well watered and fed a weekly dose liquid fertilizer, Delizz’s creators contend that this variety has the genetic potential to continuously bear fruit from June through first frost.
But don’t expect any strawberry plant to survive into the next growing season. Strawberries raised in Charleston can bear fruit only once before permanently exhausting their energies. They are considered annuals here, even if they are perennials in other regions.
Boone Hall Farms’ strawberries are planted on top of dripline irrigated mounds, a system that is also recommended for home gardening. Hernandez runs watering lines along each row near the top of, but not over, the plants. Black plastic is then stretched lengthways over drip-lines and close to both sides of the vegetation. This mitigates soil water loss through evaporation, leaving plants protected from weeds while receiving full sun. Home gardeners need not go to this trouble, but their plants at least require mulch and regular watering.
If this sounds too involved, grow your strawberries in terracotta strawberry jars, which look like tall vases with box seats. They come in various sizes and fancier glazed ceramic versions sometimes show up in antiques stores.
Although some gardeners prefer to purchase as many plants as there are pockets, plus one for the “rooftop,” Petrowski suggests growing strawberries the old-fashioned way: Insert a solitary plant at the top and patiently wait for “daughter” plants to emerge. They will eventually send out dangling runners from their “mother” and will take root if offered a seat. That’s what those pockets are for.
To start your own patch, visit Hyams Garden & Accent Store at 870 Folly Road, Charleston. For your table, visit Boone Hall Farms, 2521 N. Hwy 17, Mount Pleasant. The farm sells strawberries at its market and offers “Pickin’ In the Strawberry Patch” April through June.
PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.