By this time every summer, local strawberries are a fond memory, fading into the distance as the summer heat and scouring winds bear down. Fresh berries are still available at the store, but they’re more often than not a shipping-friendly kind that comes from hundreds of miles away.
Now researchers from Kansas State University are looking for a way to get around the berry-defeating heat that keeps Kansans from enjoying local strawberries all the way through summer and perhaps into the fall.
“We’re hoping to accomplish growing a successful strawberry crop in Kansas and implementing it in other farms so that there can be more local strawberries,” said Kelly Gude, a K-State graduate student in horticulture and urban food systems. Gude is conducting the research at the K-State Research and Extension Horticulture Center in Olathe.
The experiment uses “high tunnels” and an evaporative cooling system that create a milder climate for strawberries.
The tunnels are wall-less metal structures with roofs that protect the plants from the worst of the summer heat and wind, Gude said. Home gardeners might think of them as hoop houses without the sides.
The tunnels offer a more controlled growing environment without bringing the plants completely indoors, she said.
A plastic roof traps heat and keeps the plants above freezing in fall, while a black mesh shade covering keeps things from getting too hot at this time of year.
The roofs also somewhat limit the amount of rainwater the plants get, which has been important this year, she said. Some water does come in through the sides, though.
The plants grow on the ground with a fabric covering. Although the roof and fabric soil cover protect the plants from the worst of the heat, they don’t really cool them. They merely keep the inside temperature from heating up like a greenhouse from the sun.
The cooling comes from a sprinkler system that mists the plants every quarter hour or so. The spray on the leaves works the same way as mist stations in amusement park lines to keep temperature down.
The third part of the equation is the type of strawberry. Most home gardeners in this part of the country plant June-bearing strawberries, which deliver biggest yields in spring, Gude said.
But researchers have planted day-neutral berries in the tunnels. Day-neutral berries produce big harvests in late May, June and September, with smaller pickings in the weeks in-between, said Cary Rivard, Kansas State extension fruit and vegetable specialist at the Olathe research center.
Normally, the berries would not produce well in this area without the extra help the tunnels and sprinklers provide, Rivard said. But with them, researchers have been getting some decent harvests during the hot weeks. Playing with the sheltered growing areas and sprinklers is like creating a new growing season for the berries, he said.
More work needs to be done, however. The experiment is in its second year, but last summer was so mild that the cooling system didn’t get a good test, said Gude.
The experiment is scheduled to be over at the end of growing season this year, but it may provide a basis for expanded follow-up studies, Rivard said.
The strawberry tunnels will be on display Saturday along with information about new plant varieties and growing techniques during the extension office’s annual field day. The open house, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., will feature classes and demonstrations. Admission is $5 per person. Lunch is available for purchase during the event. The Research Center is at 35230 W. 135th St. in Olathe.