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Time to remove straw from strawberries

Author: Annie Klodd, Extension Educator - Fruit and Vegetable Production

The timing of straw removal is different every year, based on the weather and soil temperatures.

Strawberry growers across Minnesota have already begun straw removal, based on soil temperature readings and new leaf growth under the straw. If you have not removed straw yet, there is a good chance that it is time, especially if you farm in the southern half of Minnesota.

Delaying mulch removal too much leads to delayed harvest and decreased yield. However, removal timing should also be balanced with the weather if possible, to minimize risk of late spring frost damage.

New leaf growth in a strawberry bed after straw removal, April 6, 2021. Photo: Annie Klodd

Time straw removal on these factors:

  1. Strawberry leaf growth under the straw
  2. Soil temperature and moisture
  3. The weather forecast

Check the soil temperature and moisture

In addition to checking for leaf growth, soil temperatures should also be consistently at or above 40 degrees F in the top 2-4 inches before removing the straw. Many farms in Minnesota report already reaching these temperatures.  

Check for strawberry leaf growth under the straw

Pull away the straw on a few feet of row, at 6-12 places around your field, and look for new leaf growth from the crowns. Avoid using the field edges, because the plants on the edges tend to start growing sooner than the rest.

Check the early fruiting varieties first, as they will likely push leaves earlier than later fruiting varieties.

The new leaves may be yellow, but if you see them starting to emerge from the crowns, this is one sign that it is time to start removing straw.

How to remove straw

For small strawberry patches, straw can be removed with hand rakes and some quality family time outside.

Rod Elmstrand at Rod's Berry Farm in Cambridge, MN uses a modified hay rake on a 3-point hitch, where the height can be raised on lowered depending on the level of the field.

Otter Berry Farm uses a hand-built hydraweeder to efficiently remove the straw (see photo below). See it in action in this video, taken by Kris at Otter Berry Farm:
Photo credit: Otter Berry Farm

Many larger farms also use specially designed commercial mulch removers that are PTO or wheel driven.

Whichever method you use, try to keep a thin layer of straw, no more than in inch, over the plants to help suppress weeds and protect the plants from disease transmission via soil splashing.

Check the weather forecast

Delaying straw removal directly delays harvest and may reduce yields, but early warm weather also increases the chance that plants will start producing blossoms early and be vulnerable to late spring freeze and frost.  

Look at the forecast for your area of the state to determine whether there is a cold event predicted for the few days following your intended straw removal. If there is, you may consider delaying by a few days.
Ideally, wait to enter the field with a tractor until the soil has dried out somewhat. Driving heavy equipment on wet soil contributes to soil compaction. 

Managing risk - spring frost events

Freeze-injured blossom. Photo: Annie Klodd

Despite our best efforts to remove straw at the correct time, the risk always remains that we will have a late frost event weeks after straw removal, which injures the blossoms and reduces yield. This risk is generally higher in seasons where growing degree days start accumulating earlier in the spring, like this year.

Growers should always be prepared for this possibility, especially as our climate changes and spring temperatures become less predictable. Two common strategies for frost injury mitigation on strawberries include:

Additional articles on timing of straw removal:

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