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One of the last garden chores of the season is tucking in the strawberry planting for winter. Strawberry plants have already set their buds for next spring’s flowers and the crop can be lost unless you protect them from harsh winter conditions. A fully dormant strawberry plant’s flower buds can be damaged at temperatures below 15º F.
In addition to flower bud damage, the alternate freezing and thawing of the soil that commonly occurs in winter and early spring can cause plant roots to break and the plants to be heaved right out of the ground.
Mulching strawberry plants will insulate them from extreme low temperatures, minimize soil heaving and decrease excessive drying (desiccation) of the plant crowns. But be sure to wait until plants are dormant before you pile on the mulch. Applying mulch too early can cause the crown of the plant to rot. Plants should be mulched before the temperature drops below 20º F, usually by late November or early December.
Several materials can be used for winter mulch, including clean (weed-free) straw, chopped cornstalks, hay, corncobs or bark chips. Tree leaves and grass clippings are not recommended, since they tend to mat down and smother the plants. About 2-3 inches of light and airy mulch, after settling, should provide adequate protection. This is a great use for those fall decorator straw bales!
Put a note on your garden calendar to uncover the plants in spring as new growth begins. Rake off most of the mulch as soon as the first new leaves develop. The new growth will probably look a little yellow at first but will green up with exposure to light. Rake the mulch between the rows to provide weed control and a source of emergency cover in case frost threatens. Mulching around the plants will also help keep the berries clean.
Clean-up the Brambles
Since the fruiting canes of raspberries and blackberries normally die after the summer harvest, it is best to remove and burn them as soon as harvest is over. This is important because if the old canes are not removed, they will often spread diseases to the young canes. Even bits of old canes left on the ground may become the source of a cane-blight infection. If anthracnose was not controlled earlier, remove severely infected new canes when removing old ones.
If you have fall bearing raspberries such as Heritage or Caroline you can mow the entire plants down after we have temperatures in the low 20’s. They will re-grow next spring and produce a large crop in late summer and fall of next year.
Fall sanitation will greatly reduce disease and insect problems in our fruit and vegetable plantings. Happy gardening!