How to Grow Strawberries in the Tropics

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Picking fresh strawberries from your own garden is a true delight, but many gardeners living in the tropics believe they won’t grow in hot climates. However, it is possible to grow sweet strawberries in the tropics if you know a few tricks. Image: © Eszter Miller
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Most people love to eat fresh strawberries, but in most tropical countries they are expensive to buy (because they are usually airfreighted from cooler countries) and are often under-ripe which reduces the flavor. So you might have been wondering whether it is possible to grow strawberries in the tropics.

Yes it is! They are not easy to grow in the tropics, but from my experience, taking care of strawberry plants was a challenge worth overcoming. Any aspiring gardener can nurture and harvest strawberries at home, provided you can create a suitable environment and encourage favorable conditions for them to thrive.

It may seem like a daunting task at first when dealing with plants that are better-suited for cooler climates. But as you’ll learn along the way, strawberry plants only require the same amount of effort and dedication as a simple vegetable garden.

Growing Strawberry Plants at Home

There’s one very important aspect to raising strawberries at home when you’re living in a tropical region. That is, you must first choose a heat-tolerant variety to grow. In the Philippines, where I live, I grow the ‘Sweet Charlie’ and ‘Albion’ strawberries.

I highly recommend both varieties since many Filipino gardeners and have successfully grown these types of strawberries in their backyards. My Sweet Charlie strawberries have been very prolific and can go for a few days without watering. Having heat-tolerant varieties also reduces the time spent watering during the hottest months.

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Choosing a heat-tolerant variety is the key to successfully growing strawberries in the tropics. Many heat-tolerant strawberries are smaller than varieties from cooler climates, but if they are picked at the right time they are just as tasty. Image: © alyssapy

If these varieties are not available where you live, check what’s available at your local nurseries, but make sure you confirm with the sales staff that they are heat-tolerant varieties. ‘Chandler’, ‘Camarosa’ and ‘Loran’ are three well-known heat-tolerant cultivars available in other parts of the world. There’s also been reports of the ‘Camino Real’ and ‘Seascape’ varieties having successfully fruited in the tropics, and I’ve read about a gardener in Dominica in the Caribbean having successfully grown the ‘Korona’ variety – although that’s not known to be a heat-tolerant cultivar.  Perhaps that gardener was living at altitude where cooler temperatures make it easier to grow less heat-tolerant varieties of strawberries. ‘Deliz’ is a variety that’s been particularly recommended for tropical gardeners living at altitude.

Now, let’s answer some questions for anyone who wants to pick delicious strawberries from the convenience of their own tropical garden.

Where do strawberry plants grow best?

Since strawberry plants require full sun to thrive, you’re going to need an appropriate location to grow them. I’ve observed that strawberry plants prefer open spaces, so find areas where they can spread freely and reproduce. Also, watch out for those runners! Once they’re fully established, mature strawberry plants produce stolons quite frequently, and this could eventually result in overcrowding.

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One of my young strawberry plants in a hanging basket. Try growing them in a variety of different container types to see what works best for you. Image: © Joseph Cobrador

Another thing to consider before growing strawberries would be the option of growing them in containers. Should you opt for hanging baskets, clay pots, or raised garden beds? Well, that depends on the amount of space you currently have available at home. I started growing strawberries in hanging baskets just to see how they’ll turn out.  A few months later, I had to transfer the plants to large clay pots and raised beds because there were too many runners.

I recommend using hanging baskets at first, since they’re much easier to maintain and separate once a plant shows symptoms of powdery mildew or other diseases. Once you’re left with the remaining mature plants, don’t hesitate to transplant these in raised beds as soon as you can.

How often should I water my strawberry plants?

It’s very important to water strawberry plants at regular intervals.

During the hottest months, your watering schedule should include early morning and early afternoon. This ensures that the plants have adequate time to soak up nutrients while the soil is still wet. Also, watering early allows for proper drainage and keeps the roots from rotting over time. Never water strawberry plants at night.

It is also best to water the soil thoroughly and not the strawberry plant itself. Most importantly, avoid watering the crown and the leaves. These plant parts are very vulnerable to diseases when wet and it’s best to keep them dry as much as possible.

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Try to keep the strawberry plants dry when watering the soil around them to avoid problems with pest and diseases. It’s a simple task that even kids love to tackle. Image: © Pezibear

During the rainy season, your schedule will likely be greatly altered due to sudden weather changes. Water the strawberry plants only when there’s inadequate rainfall.

Make sure to observe the soil frequently. Once you see signs of waterlogging, cover the raised beds and transfer the pots and containers under a roof. Always keep the soil from getting drenched whenever it rains consistently within a week.

What type of fertilizer is best for strawberry plants?

I prefer to grow my strawberries organically, that is without any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. But your strawberries still need feeding, so I do that by adding compost and mulching them. This is very important especially when encouraging strawberry blossoms and runners.

There are many ways to create compost, and it’s much easier to do in the tropics because the heat speeds up the composting process.

My ideal compost pile includes dry leaves, kitchen scraps, and banana peels. Having these materials shredded would further speed up the decomposition process. Once the compost is ready, add the finished product to the soil and cover any exposed roots. Keep the crown above ground level at all times.

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Use your vegetable scraps to make compost to feed your strawberries. That way you’ll know they are wholly organic. Strawberries grown organically are tastier than those grown with chemical fertilizers. Image: © melGreenFR

I also suggest making banana compost tea for watering once the plant starts producing flowers and runners. Don’t forget to add any leftover banana peels to the compost pile.

As for mulch, I use a combination of dried, unfertilized grass mixed with rice hulls. Not only does mulch serve as an organic fertilizer, as it breaks down, it also keeps the soil moist during the dry season. You can also use other materials such as hay straw or shredded leaves depending on what is available in your locality.

How do I protect strawberries from pests and diseases?

In the early stages of the plant’s development, always watch out for powdery mildew. That usually starts as white powdery patches on leaves, sometimes even near the edges. Although this disease rarely damages the plant, it can eventually hinder plant growth. When you see signs of the disease, remove the infected leaves and separate the plant from the others.

Once mature plants produce flowers and strawberries, I would advise setting up barriers against birds and critters. You may start by covering the area with netting and wrapping the developing berries in small plastic bags or pouches. I’ve also grown marigolds and aromatic herbs near the plants to help keep pests away. Observe frequently for harmful creatures until the strawberries have ripened.

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Growing strawberries in raised beds or cultivation boxes helps with pest control because it makes it easier to check them for snails, slugs and other pests. Image: © Kalevi

Most importantly, pests and diseases can easily be prevented by maintaining a safe and healthy environment for strawberries to grow. Always stick to a regular watering schedule and keep the crown and leaves dry to ward off diseases. Add little piles of mulch under ripening berries to keep them from touching the soil where bugs and worms crawl.

Lastly, make sure the plants get enough nutrients and try not to use any inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. If you feel the plants aren’t getting enough nutrients from the compost, then you can supplement feeding with an organic liquid fertilizer like fish emulsion or liquid seaweed. But water only the soil around the plants, not the plants themselves.

What are strawberry runners? Should I remove them?

Strawberry stolons or runners are horizontal stems spreading out from the main plant that eventually form new plants. The strawberry plant starts propagating once the conditions are suitable for reproduction.

It’s best to remove runners while the strawberry plant is still young so that the plant can use more energy to produce flowers and fruit as it matures. Runners should also be removed when strawberry flowers first appear. During this stage, plant nutrients and energy should be reserved for flower and fruit development.

So when do you stop removing runners and allow the plant to start propagating?

Look out for vigorous plants sending out runners frequently. When the plant’s ready, you can begin layering the stolons by partially covering the bud where new leaves grow. You may also want to peg down the node until the developing roots can hold the young strawberry plant firmly in place.

How do I pollinate strawberry flowers?

Strawberry flowers are best manually pollinated in the tropics in order to produce fruit. Even when there are garden pollinators, such as bees, ants, and butterflies, I still recommend hand pollination so that the strawberries won’t be deformed in shape.

Because the strawberry blossoms are very delicate, I suggest using a small watercolour paintbrush for this process. Lightly dampen the brush tip with clean water and gently wipe the anthers towards the center of the flower. The pollen grains are quite tiny but you can still see them, especially when you’re using a paintbrush with dark bristles.

You may also want to determine whether the flowers are ready to be pollinated. This can be done by gently touching one of the anthers to test for pollen grains.

Should I harvest strawberries once they’re red?

Different strawberry varieties have different characteristics. Most strawberries are ready to be harvested once the fruit is entirely red. On the other hand, some strawberries may even turn completely red and still be unripe. Although color can be a good indicator, it’s better to check for more signs before confirming the ripeness of a strawberry.

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One of my strawberries almost ready for picking. As strawberry plants continually produce fruit, it won’t take long for you to work out when they are ready for picking. Image: © Joseph Cobrador

The Sweet Charlie strawberries in my garden emit a very sweet fragrance whenever they’re ready to be plucked from the plant. I’ve also noticed that the fruit is much softer and plumper compared to unripe berries. You can tell from their size and shape as well, since ripe strawberries are much bigger, fuller, and more round than unripe ones.

Growing strawberries in the tropics is entirely possible and can be a fun experience for gardeners. You may encounter some different problems to me when taking care of your strawberries – depending on where you live – and you may need to adopt some different strategies and do things your own way. Who knows? Maybe one day, it’ll be your turn to share some helpful tips with curious gardeners about growing strawberries for the first time!

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