A Guide to Growing Strawberries in Alaska
by Wendy Wesser
The wild and hybrid strawberries we grow in our Alaska gardens cannot be bought in grocery stores. Even if you were lucky enough to find ripe berries in a local farmers’ market, the sweet delicate flavor of a freshly picked strawberry would already be lost. The strawberry is a native plant here in Alaska and there are many places where you can find strawberries growing wild, like the town of Gustavus in Southeast Alaska. When our family lived in Juneau we once spent a memorable weekend in the small community of Gustavus. The main purpose of our family trip was to take a Glacier Bay National Park day cruise, but we also spent a lot of time exploring Gustavus on our bikes. We were delighted to find fields of wild strawberries to enjoy while we took our breaks. Wild strawberries may be very small, but their unique and sweet taste makes up for their size. In Interior Alaska, near Fairbanks, my aunt and uncle have found enough wild strawberries, in fields near their home, to make a batch of strawberry jam for the past two years. Here in Southcentral Alaska I’m not aware of any large strawberry patches growing in the wild, but you can easily and successfully grow them in your own yard.
Neighbors and friends are often willing to share strawberry starts from their gardens. Accept them … even if they cannot tell you what type of strawberry they are. There are hardy strawberry plants that have been propagated in homestead farms and gardens throughout Alaska since the early 1900s. I have a couple types of strawberries in my yard that were given to me by my grandma and my great aunt years ago. No one in our extended family knows for sure what specific types they are, but they are at least forty years old and probably older. I have shared my strawberries with friends, family and neighbors and they report successful patches also.
When you buy strawberry plants from a commercial nursery you need to be careful to know what type you are buying. Several imported varieties are only good as annuals in Alaska. If you are fine with an annual strawberry some of these can do great in your gardens, pots or in hanging baskets. I would like to give you a list of varieties available, but I called several Southcentral greenhouses and none offered the same varieties recommended by the cooperative extension service. Only two of the greenhouses I called were knowledgeable about strawberry varieties developed in Alaska. Ask your local nursery questions if you are looking for a perennial strawberry variety that will prove hardy and return every year. If you can’t find a local nursery selling a variety that will survive the winters in your area of Alaska, local garden club plant sales could be a good option. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Growing strawberries in Alaska has a rich history of experimentation.
July is not too late to start your own perennial strawberry patch if you can find starts at a local greenhouse or from a friend or neighbor. Start your patch in a sunny south facing space if possible. My patch does well in partial shade, but I know I would have better results in a sunnier area of my yard. Give your new plants a fighting chance by starting them in a cultivated area as weed free as possible. When transplanting strawberry plants be sure to cover the roots and just the lower part of the crown when planting. Water the transplants well with a water soluble fertilizer solution. Keep your new patch weeded.
An established perennial strawberry patch is easy to care for. Most varieties generally need to be fertilized lightly with 8-32-16 in the spring. I weed my strawberry beds 2 or 3 times during the summer. I would have better production if I weeded and fertilized more often, but our strawberries are resilient enough to survive and continue to spread with minimal care. Strawberries do well with about 1 inch of water per week. In the late fall if your patch is exposed and snow has not fallen in time to do the job, protect your patch with straw. I will say I have never covered my patch with anything and it has done just fine. However, my patch is in a protected area that gets covered naturally in leaves.
Consider strawberries for an edible ground cover. If I could talk my husband into it I would dig up most (if not all) of “his” lawn and a good portion of that space would be given over to strawberries. Their habit of spreading by runners allows strawberries to take over large spaces in no time.
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Last Frontier Magazine.