|Runners seeking a new spot|
A single strawberry plant becomes a mother as it sends out runners in all directions. Each runner can root and produce a daughter plant. Some runners have multiple nodes that can root and may produce two or three daughters. These offspring can quickly fill in a large garden bed. If you like order and symmetry, the tangle of runners and resulting daughters can wreak havoc with your world. If you like many new plants that don't cost a nickel, you'll be in heaven.
Don't feel like you're at the mercy of nature and disorder when the runners start spreading. Like most good daughters, you can train them to behave. Move them in the direction of a bare piece of soil and you can target where they'll root. You might need to use a garden staple to get them to stay put, but you be the boss. If a plant starts sending out more runners than you have space for, prune off the ones you don't want. If a runner has multiple baby plants on it, you can cut the runner just past the first one so the mother's energy will be directed to that one; it will root a little faster and become stronger than if you leave multiple daughters on the same runner.
To avoid overcrowding, you don't want more than five or six plants per square foot. That's about one plant every six inches. With control and attention you can create a patchwork of plants that will fill in a nice grid in your planting bed. Trained daughters can create new rows on either side of the mothers.
A mother plant will produce fruit up to four years, though the quantity and size of fruit will diminish during the last couple years. I like to propagate my strawberries using a three-year cycle. During the first year I pinch off most of the new flowers so it develops into a strong plant; berries will deplete food reserves and delay new runner production later in the season. Strong plants will produce more strawberries than ones that are allowed to fruit early. During the second year I let the mothers provide an abundance of fruit and trim off most of the runners. During the third year I harvest more fruit, let some daughters root, and at the end of the season I remove the mother plants. Daughters from other plants are trained into the now-vacant row.
Using a three-year cycle ensures you always have a third of your bed developing into strong plants while two-thirds are producing many, large strawberries. Fail to follow this or a similar process and you'll have an overgrown bed of old plants that won't produce very much. If you have the space, you can use this method to have three beds of strawberries, of three different ages. Transplant rooted daughters into the empty bed after you remove the oldest plants. It can be a lot of effort, but it maximizes the fruit production.
I used to live near strawberry farms in California and it seemed they followed a similar process but in an accelerated timeframe. The cultivars they used produced multiple harvests. After the second or third harvest, in the same year, they would remove many of the plants and root new ones. The concept is that strawberry plants produce smaller fruit with each subsequent harvest. It works the same in your garden.
It's the time of year when our vegetable and fruit gardens decline and we look to our next season. If you don't have strawberries in your garden think about adding them next year. Right now you can pick out the location and visualize it being filled with big, plump berries in the years ahead. One 4' by 8' bed is all you need for substantial yields. Twenty-five to fifty plants will provide enough berries for a family of four to enjoy. If you start with as few as 10 plants, you can easily triple that number by the end of the year. That's a better return than you can find in any stock market. I call that a great investment.