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Overwintering Strawberries - Timing of Fall Mulch Application and Spring Removal

Laura McDermott, Team Leader, Small Fruit and Vegetable Specialist
Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture

November 2, 2018

Successful overwintering of strawberries is a tricky business and not giving it enough consideration can result in poor yield the following year.

Strawberries are perennial, and like most perennial plants they begin to go dormant as day length diminishes and cold temperatures set in.  During this period of cold acclimation the plants are still very active - in fact this is when the fruit buds are being developed for the following seasons' crop.  You will see changes in the appearance of the berry plants as cold acclimation advances.  Leaf development stops, the leaf petioles become horizontal, and the plant appears to flatten out, and older leaves turn red. 

The challenge with cold acclimation is that plants don't become ‘hardy' until cold acclimation is completed.  Hardiness is effectively reached when freezing temperatures exist for 2-3 days - so not just night minimums but a good hard cold spell.  Ideally that cold would continue for the duration of the winter.  Hardiness allows plants to resist low temperature damage.  Strawberry plant hardiness - or ability to resist cold damage - continues to increase as the days get shorter. 

Photosynthesis is also required for cold acclimation to occur, so plants which are mulched before these environmental conditions have been met will not be fully winter-hardy.  Strawberry plants are not as tolerant of cold temperatures as other perennial fruit crops even when fully acclimated.  Variation in production systems like raised, plastic mulched beds further complicates a seemingly easy task. 

Cold injury appears in the spring as either fully dead plants or more likely, very weak plants.  The crown tissue browns. Temperatures in the single digits can kill crown tissue, but even temps in the mid-teens can cause fewer flowers and fruit, if those temperatures occur while tissue is in a non-dormant phase. 

This is where mulch comes in.  Mulch mimics snow - which is a great insulator against cold.  Mulch prevents crown desiccation from wind, moderates soil temperatures and prevents freeze-thaw cycles that can damage plant roots and lift crowns out of the soil.  Research suggests that using soil temperature as your timing guide is the best way to plan for mulch application.  When soil temperature drops to 40°F or below, after three hard freezes, apply mulch.  This usually happens between mid-November and mid-December.   Mulch should be applied at 2.5 to 3.5 tons per acre and should be an evenly distributed depth of 2 to 3" thick after it settles.

What type of straw?  Straws from wheat, oats, rice or Sudan grass can be used - just be sure the straw is free from weed seeds and don't use straw that was treated with glyphosate at harvest as strawberry plant injury has been reported when the straw was treated close to the date it was baled.  Straws coarser than Sudan grass and hay are not recommended as they tend to mat down and trap water during the winter which can damage strawberry crowns. Strawberry growers can produce their own straw, often cutting the straw before the grain seed is viable.   If grain seedlings become a weed problem, apply sethoxydim in the spring. 

Raised beds complicate things.  Raised beds can be at least 5°F colder than flat beds, but mulching overcomes most of this negative effect.  An additional challenge is that the berry cultivars grown in raised beds are sometimes not as winter hardy as traditional June bearing varieties. 

There are two methods that have proven successful for growers using raised beds covered black plastic mulch.  Floating row covers, like the heavyweight Typar 518 (1.25 oz/yd2 or 42 g/m2) can be used instead of straw.  Row covers should be applied on a calm day using the same soil temperature guides as with straw mulch.  The edges should be anchored with rocks or sand bags and then covered with soil to prevent the fabric from becoming a sail during the winter.  Many growers have reported that the combination of black plastic lined beds, with a floating row cover, provides adequate winter protection, even in colder regions of the northeastern USA.

The second method requires straw mulch applied at a heavier rate than in a flat field situation.  It's important to provide enough straw that if it slides off the top of the bed into the row alleys that there is still some straw left to protect the crowns.  The rate will vary with the height of the beds, but usually it requires a minimum of 4 tons per acre of straw in a raised bed system.

Many growers are experimenting with combining straw and row covers, or using double layers of row covers.  Whatever the method you choose - make sure that you are timing the application properly by using soil temperature as your guide. 

Proper timing of mulch removal is critical.  This past spring, the weather was cold and cloudy for most of March and into April.  The concern over bloom protection in frost events (admittedly the worst job in farming) led growers to keep mulch on berry plants far too long resulting in many poor looking berry plantings.  Keep in mind that unlike deciduous perennials, strawberries still have leaves during their dormancy.  That results in a very low level of respiration that occurs even during the winter - but as air and soil temperatures warm, and day length increases - the plants move out of dormancy and start growing.  They have received sufficient chilling and they are ready to go! 

For overall success, growers should remove mulch when soil temperatures reach 40 degrees, or they should plan to do it by early April in our region.  Leaving mulch on the plant well into April results in crown rot and starved plants that don't bounce back in time for harvest.  This situation is one reason why growers have moved to using row covers for mulching.  Row covers allow some light and the plants can start growing a bit earlier than they might with a heavy straw cover.  Straw mulch can be raked off by hand or modified hay rakes have been specifically designed for the purpose.  

What about fertilizing plants after mulch is removed? If plants look very stressed, or have obvious winter injury or lots of deer browse, a light fertilizer application might be appropriate.  Research results indicate that Nitrogen rates above 30 lbs/acre applied in the spring will push plant growth at the expense of fruit production.   Calcium nitrate is absorbed well in cold soil situations, and potassium will be pulled up through the plant as it transpires.  Nitrogen rates ranging from 5-15 lbs of actual N per acre have been seen as appropriate at this early stage. 

Other factors that impact overwintering success include deer browse and diseased plants.  Autumn deer browse is a serious problem in our region.  Deer fencing is the only consistently effective way to insure that deer don't get into your strawberries.  Applying mulch earlier than required is not a good way to minimize deer browse.

Strawberry plants with serious leaf spot infections have been shown to have significantly poorer bud development in the fall and thus lower yield in the spring.  There is some indication that these plants are more susceptible to winter injury compounding the loss the following year. 



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Upcoming Events

Berry Production Twilight Meeting

Event Offers DEC Credits

July 8, 2021
Peru, NY

Rulf's Orchard, 531 Bear Swamp Road, Peru, NY 

Many berry topics will be discussed including growing Juneberries (Amelanchier, not strawberries), using entomopathogenic nematodes to control strawberry root pests, low tunnel production in June bearing strawberries, SWD monitoring and management. 2.5 DEC pesticide recertification credits available in categories 1A, 10, 22, and 23. Contact Elisabeth Hodgdon (eh528@cornell.edu or 518-650-5323) or Laura McDermott (lgm4@cornell.edu or 518-746-2562) with questions.

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Announcements

U-Pick Farm Practices During Covid-19 Pandemic

U-Pick is a critical direct marketing approach for many of our farms and provides
customers with a unique connection to fresh produce grown close to home. In light
of what we understand about the spread of COVID-19, new management practices
will be needed to protect your farm team and your customers. This document
provides recommended practices and communication strategies for U-Pick
operations for the 2020 season.

https://rvpadmin.cce.cornell.edu/uploads/doc_864.pdf

Growers-are you running low on fall pumpkins, etc?

The Produce Auctions located around the state may have what you need.  Check out all of the opportunities here: https://harvestny.cce.cornell.edu/submission.php?id=4

Resources from CCE ENYCHP!

We are developing new ways to connect with the CCE ENYCHP team this year! We have a Youtube page located at this link. Check out videos on Table Grape Production, Pest Updates and the 20 Minute Ag Manager - in 4 Minutes series

We have a Facebook Page here as well as an Instagram page. We keep these places updated with current projects, events, and other interesting articles and deadlines.

There are also text alerts available. Fruit and vegetable farmers in 17 Eastern NY counties can now receive real time alerts on high risk disease and pest outbreaks texted directly to their cell phone. The Eastern NY Commercial Horticulture program, which is supported by local Cornell Cooperative Extension associations, will now offer text alerts to those that enroll in our program in 2019. 

The text alerts will be reserved for important crop alerts that could impact management decisions immediately. For instance, if there were an outbreak of Late Blight in the area, this would be transmitted to vegetable growers.

Farmers can choose the crop for which they wish to receive updates. Additionally they can request that Ag Business Alerts be sent to them. These alerts might include due dates for crop insurance deadlines, market opportunities etc.

If you have questions, please contact enychp@cornell.edu


Podcasts

“Understanding Fungicide Resistance and How to Avoid It” with Dr. Margaret McGrath

June 16, 2021
ENYCHP Veg News Farm and Field Updates with Teresa Rusinek
“Understanding Fungicide Resistance and How to Avoid It” with Dr. Margaret McGrath of Cornell University
In this this podcast ENYCHP vegetable specialist Teresa Rusinek interviews Dr. Margaret McGrath, of Cornell University School of Integrative Plant Science, to discuss the development of fungicide resistance in plant pathogens and steps growers can take to avoid it.
Resources:
https://www.vegetables.cornell.edu/pest-management/disease-factsheets/general-guidelines-for-managing-fungicide-resistance/
Vegetable Pathology – Long Island Horticultural Research & Extension Center (cornell.edu)
The Cucurbit Downy Mildew Forecast Homepage
https://cdm.ipmpipe.org/

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