Why Are Strawberries From My Garden So Small?
Are your garden strawberries smaller than the ones you usually pick up at the grocery store? Don't fret, because this actually happens to many gardeners and is quite common. In this article, organic gardening expert Logan Hailey explores nine reasons why your garden strawberries might be smaller than normal and how to fix it!
Strawberries are one of the tastiest and easiest to grow fruits for beginner gardeners. These luscious red berries can be grown as annuals or perennials and yield abundantly with very little effort. They are one of the most popular fruits grown by gardeners across the world due to their bountiful yields, and easy maintenance.
But it can be disappointing to plant and tend strawberry plants, only to discover that the fruits didn’t grow as big as the grocery store types. If you’re dealing with small garden strawberries, there may be an issue with your fertility or watering regime, soil preparation, planting time, variety, or pollination.
It doesn’t matter if you choose to grow organically, or naturally, small strawberries can plague just about any gardener. But there are actually several reasons this can happen, and most of them can be fixed. So, Let’s dig into why your strawberries are so small and what to do about it!
Quick Answer: Why Are My Strawberries From My Garden So Small?
Strawberries can produce small berries when they are under stress or not receiving the resources they need. These popular fruit plants are fairly easy going as long as they are set up for success at the time of planting.
The main possible reasons for small strawberries include:
- Heat stress
- Cold stress
- Not enough water
- Fertility problems
- Lack of pruning
- Too many weeds
- Variety and genetics
- Pollination problems
Use this simple guide to figure out the main reason(s) why you aren’t getting large strawberries in the garden, plus how to fix it!
9 Reasons Why Your Garden Strawberries are Small
Traditionally, strawberries grow fairly quickly compared to other fruiting plants. If your strawberry plants are ripening tiny berries, this could be a sign that your plants are being exposed to undue stress or they’re not getting what they need to thrive. These are the 9 most common reasons for small strawberries.
The main reason that strawberries may produce small fruits is due to stress. Unfortunately, this is the hardest factor to control because most plant stress is linked to weather. However, you have quite a few options when it comes to buffering weather extremes and ensuring that your strawberry plants have plenty of water during drought. Heat is the most common stressor for this temperate-climate plant.
Under heat stress, strawberries tend to have a pretty hard time. Most varieties don’t perform well in excessively hot or tropical areas. Heat can be a primary cause for smaller berries.
How to Fix:
Choose heat tolerant varieties like ‘Albion’, ‘Sweet Charlie’, ‘Camarosa’, or ‘Chandler’. If you are trying to grow strawberries in a hot southern climate, consider planting them as annuals in the winter months. You can also plant them in a partially shaded area of the garden. Mulching the bases with straw also helps keep the root zones cool.
When under cold stress, strawberry plants can drop their flowers or have small, weakened yields. Spring cold snaps can be problematic once the strawberry plants have broken out of dormancy and started to grow leaves and flowers. Cold daytime temperatures can also be linked to other issues with insect pollination that we’ll explain below.
How to Fix:
The easiest way to help strawberry plants under spring cold stress is to simply use row cover over the plants. But remember an important caveat: once the plants begin to flower, the row cover needs to be removed during the day to allow for pollination. You can recover them at night to keep them cozy.
Not Enough Water
During drought periods, it is vital that you provide strawberries with an abundance of water. Too little water is one of the key reasons why berries wind up puny or shriveled. Strawberries really resent dry soil. If you want to grow robust, big strawberries, the soil should never fully dry out.
How to Fix:
Use drip irrigation and straw or leaf mulch to keep your strawberries hydrated and conserve moisture in the root zone. If you can’t setup a proper drip irrigation system, find other ways to keep your garden moist with more frequent waterings.
Small berries can also be a result of too little or too much fertility. For example, too much nitrogen and you may fuel an excess of foliage growth (vegetative production) with fewer flowers and fruits (reproductive growth). You can also cause fertilizer burn or even kill the plants with too much nitrogen.
On the contrary, too little nitrogen results in not enough energy for the plant to grow all its new buds and leaves after the dormant season. Spring is a very energy-demanding time for strawberry plants and they need to have the fertility necessary to ramp up for a summer of producing fruits. Without enough spring plant food, strawberries may yield very small fruits in low quantities simply because they don’t have enough minerals to put into berry production.
As you can tell, fertilizing strawberries is all about balance. You want enough nitrogen to fire up spring plant growth, but so much that you accidentally promote too much vegetative rather than reproductive growth. It isn’t just about how much fertilizer you feed them, but when you apply it.
How to Fix:
For larger strawberries, be sure to never add excessive nitrogen. Apply a quality, slow-release organic fertilizer (such as blood meal, fish meal, fish emulsion, or feather meal) in the spring at the time of planting (if growing as annuals) or after the plants have broken dormancy (if growing as perennials).
Follow the recommended application rate on the box or from your local extension service and avoid using too much. Do not fertilize past this point in the spring. Ensure that your soil is thoroughly amended with quality aged compost (preferably not manure-based compost) to support beneficial microorganisms that transform soil minerals into plant-available forms.
Lack of Pruning
Strawberries send out lots of runners, or baby plants, from the central plant. While it may seem nice to have all these new strawberry plants in the garden, they actually take away energy from the mother plant. If you forget to prune off strawberry runners, you may notice smaller fruit. This is because the plant is channeling its energy into producing new baby plants rather than growing larger berries.
How to Fix:
Regularly prune your strawberry plants to encourage heavy fruit production and root establishment. It’s best to remove runners with pruners or a simple snap every time you harvest. It only takes a second and can make a big difference for your berry yields.
Strawberry yields naturally reduce over time, especially if they are allowed to produce a tangled “mat” of runners and baby plants. Many production farmers remove strawberries every year and simply plant new strawberry crowns to refresh their crop. This can result in bigger berries and higher yields while also allowing you to rotate the strawberries around your garden.
How to Fix:
Remove old strawberry plants (2-3+ years) and replace them. You may want to grow your strawberries as annuals or biennial plants to maintain the vigor of the patch.
Too Many Weeds
Like most of us, strawberries don’t like too many weeds competing for their space. If you forget to weed your strawberry beds, the weeds can stunt strawberry growth and result in smaller berries.
How to Fix:
Weed the area on a regular basis and use mulch to suppress new weeds from coming up. You shouldn’t be using an herbicide near plants you are trying to consume, so the best bet is to properly weed the area, and keep on top of it at all times.
Variety and Genetics
The genetics of some strawberry varieties cause them to naturally produce smaller berries. For example, wild type or “Alpine” strawberries (Fragaria vesca) produce tiny berries with superb bursts of flavor. Novelty varieties like the French ‘Mignonette’ or the alpine-type ‘Alexandria’ are specifically bred to grow extra tiny berries with delectable sweetness and aroma. Some other differently colored strawberries are just genetically smaller as well.
Another consideration is what type of strawberry you planted. The three main categories of strawberries include Day-Neutral, June-Bearing, and Everbearing. Depending on the type you picked, your plants may simply be too young to grow their full size berries.
For example, June-Bearing varieties will produce much smaller berries in their first-year flush. This is why many gardeners pluck the flowers in the first year in order to encourage root establishment for a larger, more abundant yield in the second year.
How to Fix:
If you prefer the largest, juiciest strawberries, opt for June Bearing varieties like ‘Earligrow’, ‘Yambu’, or ‘Jewel’. Be sure to remove the flowers in the first year of planting in order to enjoy the largest possible berries in the second year.
Last but certainly not least, pollination problems can be a major bummer for your strawberry crop. Small or deformed berries are a common sign that your strawberry flowers aren’t getting enough visits from their pollinator allies. If only half the achenes (seeds) are pollinated, the strawberries will wind up half the size and may develop weird shapes as well.
Like many fruits, strawberries depend on pollination to reach their full size. Adverse weather like heavy rains, winds, or cold can result in fewer pollinators that are out-and-about to do the job. While we can’t control the weather, we can try our best to bring as many pollinators to the strawberry patch as possible.
How to Fix:
Plant bee-attracting flowers near your strawberry patch such as white alyssum, yarrow, dill, phacelia, borage, flowering thyme, nasturtium, calendula, and basil. If your area is really lacking in pollinators, you can also release native bees into your garden. These are available online and at some local garden stores.
Worst case scenario, you can hand-pollinate small amounts of strawberry flowers using a small paintbrush. Simply brush from the outside of the flower to the inside, bringing pollen to the pistils. Hand-pollinate all the open flowers every 2-3 days to ramp up fruit production.
Ultimately, a successful strawberry crop comes down to planning for success. You need to plant the right variety for your climate, create a dependable irrigation system, and monitor the weather for any extremes. The most common reasons for small berries are related to a variety of different plant stressors or simply a lack of pollination.
In summary, if you want to grow bigger strawberries:
- Buffer strawberries against extreme weather (use row cover in cold climates and plant in cooler months for southern climates)
- Use drip irrigation and mulch to ensure continuous moisture
- Feed strawberries a slow-release organic fertilizer only in the spring
- Do not feed plants with too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer
- Prune off runners
- Replace old strawberry plants (older than 3-5 years) with new crowns
- Keep up with weeding
- Plant large-berry varieties
- Ensure plenty of bees are around for pollination
So, there you have it. The most common reasons why your strawberries may be producing smaller fruits. Most of these are fixable, and with a little dirt under your fingernails, you should be able to get your garden producing fully sized fruits in no time!