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By Elizabeth Joseph, Heifer Farm garden and education coordinator

There are some telltale signs of spring at Heifer Farm — the lambs playing in the barns, the smell of maple syrup wafting from the Sugar House and spring flowers emerging from the ground. In the garden, garlic tops, asparagus stalks and overwintered parsnips poke through the mulch to reach the sunlight.

The greening and new growth of strawberry vines also takes place and is one of the best parts of this spring transformation, with the promise of sweet, juicy berries just around the corner, or garden row, as it were. Best of all? Strawberries are perennials, so they’ll come back each spring without much effort. Here are some tips for growing strawberries in your garden, in a container, or wherever you find a bit of earth this spring!

Gardeners harvest strawberries at Heifer Farm.
Gardeners harvest strawberries at Heifer Farm.

Strawberries (Fragaria ananassa) are semi-hardy plants that require full sun. There are many cultivars, or varieties, to choose from. Factors to consider include climate, flavor, firmness, how you’ll use the berries (eating fresh, jam, freezing and so on), disease resistance and ripening habits. June-bearing types flower in the spring, while ever-bearing or day-neutral strawberries fruit multiple times in a season. Local seed companies or nurseries are helpful resources when picking out varieties.

For the best strawberries — as with all fruits, veggies, herbs, trees, you name it — it’s essential to build soil fertility before planting to maximize plant health and produce a more robust, flavorful and nutrient-rich crop. You can take a soil test and amend for mineral deficiencies, build soil structure through compost and bed preparation, and put down mulch to feed and encourage soil biology (the earthworms, bacteria and fungi) that are integral for plants to grow.

Mulching also helps with weed control, which is important because once the plant sends out runners from the main plant, it is difficult to weed with any tools. Place a thick layer of organic matter — weed-free compost, shredded leaves, hay, straw — and when it’s time to plant, keep the majority of the mulch in place and simply push some aside where the plant is going.

At Heifer Farm in Rutland, Massachusetts, we plant strawberries in raised beds in May. Recommended spacing is 18-24 inches apart in rows four feet apart. Most strawberry plants come in the form of bare root stock, and it is important to plant the crown level with the ground.

You can help the plant get established by keeping the soil mulched and moist, and by pinching any flowers that bloom during the first year of growth. Trim runners if they spread into the walking paths to allow for good ventilation to prevent pests and mold. Another simple (and delicious) tip to maintain a healthy strawberry patch is to be thorough when harvesting, and not let any spoil in the patch. If you live in an area with a freeze/thaw cycle, then mulch over the plants with straw in the fall (one theory as to how strawberries got their name) to prevent winter damage.

Strawberries are perennial, so you can enjoy these sweet treats each year so long as pests, weeds and diseases are kept at bay. After the third year yields drop, so think ahead and plant new strawberries each year to ensure there are always strawberries on the way come springtime. Happy growing!

Strawberry Granita

Strawberry Granita

• 1 cup hot water
• 3/4 cup sugar
• 2 tablespoons lemon juice
• 3 cups sliced, hulled strawberries (from 1 pound whole berries), plus additional berries for garnish

Stir first three ingredients in small bowl until sugar dissolves. Blend sliced strawberries in blender or food processor until smooth. Add sugar syrup and blend until combined. Pour mixture into 9-by-13-inch nonstick metal baking pan. Freeze until icy around the edges, about 25 minutes.

Using a fork, stir the icy portions into the middle of the pan. Freeze until mixture is thoroughly frozen, stirring edges into center every 20 to 30 minutes, over one to two hours. Using a fork, scrape granita into flaky crystals. Cover tightly and freeze. (Can be made one day ahead. Keep frozen.) Scrape granita into bowls. Garnish with berries and serve.

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