A reader recently asked why their strawberry plant’s leaves are drooping. While I had an idea, I did some research to find out more. Here’s what I found.
Strawberry plants get wilting leaves from improper watering, hot weather, transplant shock, and diseases such as root rot and Verticillium wilt. To prevent droopy leaves, only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry and apply compost and mulch. Also, provide partial shade when temperatures exceed 80ºF.
Let’s take a look at how we can identify the issue causing drooping and wilting leaves on strawberry plants, and how we can fix it.
1. Improper Watering
The best way to water strawberry plants is to only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry. I check this by pushing a finger into the soil.
By watering in this way, we’re preventing both under and over-watering.
When strawberry plants are under-watered, their roots don’t have enough moisture to pass to the leaves. As a result, their leaves dry, droop/wilt, curl, brown, and drop from the plant.
Under-watering is made worse when the climate is hot and dry (more on this later). This further speeds up the evaporation of water from the soil, drying the strawberry plant’s leaves in a matter of days or even hours.
So, while following the rule of only watering when the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry is best, you can also slow the evaporation of water from the soil and keep it protected from the elements.
Here are the two best ways to prevent under-watering.
Apply 1 inch of compost every 1-2 months. Compost increases the soil’s richness, provides valuable plant nutrients, and promotes healthy soil life. For example, every 1% increase in the soil’s organic matter leads to an additional 20,000 gallons of water held per acre.
Apply 1-2 inches of mulch every 3-6 months. Mulch dramatically reduces evaporation, regulates soil temperature, and prevents erosion. Like compost, mulch feeds beneficial soil life such as earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi.
Mycorrhizal fungi promote many aspects of plant life, in particular improved nutrition, better growth, stress tolerance, and disease resistance.Department of Biology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
But what if your strawberry plant’s soil is staying too wet?
Strawberry plants that are over-watered show symptoms such as leaves drooping/wilting, yellowing, and dropping. If the issue isn’t corrected, it can lead to a dying strawberry plant.
You can tell if a strawberry plant’s soil is over-watered if it’s staying sopping wet for more than 24 hours. Ideally, the soil should have moisture similar to a wrung-out sponge.
As with under-watering, aim to only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry.
While over-watering can be caused by watering too frequently, it’s more commonly caused by poorly draining soil. This is typical with soil that’s high in clay.
Let’s take a look at how to identify, test, and amend poorly draining soil.
A good way to test your soil’s drainage is by doing a percolation test. Here’s how to do one:
- Dig a 1-foot by 1-foot hole
- Place a yardstick in the hole and fill it with water
- After an hour, measure the water line on the yardstick
The goal for proper drainage is about 2 inches per hour. However, this is a guideline and not a rule, so don’t worry if yours is way off. This is just a way to see if your soil has poor or fast drainage.
If the soil is draining well under or over 2 inches an hour, amend it by placing 1-2 inches of compost on top of the soil. Compost fixes both poor and fast drainage as it retains water while breaking up the larger chunks of soil.
I recommend digging at least 3 different holes across your property as some areas might have much better drainage than others.
2. Heat or Frost Stress
Strawberry plants are natively from temperature climates, so they prefer cooler environments such as USDA hardiness zones 4-9. To find your hardiness zone and see if it’s compatible with strawberries, see the USDA hardiness zone map.
However, this is a generalization as some varieties prefer warmer or colder zones.
Climates that are too cold (below zone 4) or those that are hot and dry quickly pose a problem for strawberry plants.
Keep strawberry plants in a cool and mild climate if possible. If the sun is too hot, and the tips of the leaves are curling and browning, provide shade or move potted strawberries indoors. When bringing them indoors, take care to avoid the hot and dry air from the central heat.
As always, make sure your strawberry plants get at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily (aim for the morning sun as it’s cooler).
In hot and dry areas such as California, Arizona, Nevada, and parts of Texas, strawberry plants lose moisture from their leaves and soil quickly. Normally, strawberry plants do best in temperatures under 80ºF. Any hotter and they start to decline and die.
Much like humans, plants cool themselves by exhaling moisture (called transpiration). Plants also keep themselves cool by sending moisture from their roots to their leaves.
This becomes a problem when the climate is too hot and dry. Essentially, the transpiration and root moisture can’t keep up and cool the plant and its leaves.
As a result, the strawberry plant’s leaves wilt, dry, curl, brown, and drop if it’s bad enough.
So, the hotter and drier the weather, the more energy the plant uses to transpire and survive, and the less energy it has to use to establish its root system and grow. This drain of resources can quickly stunt or kill the plant.
The best practices to help your strawberry plant survive hot and dry weather are to provide it with sufficient water, compost, and mulch. Additionally, give it partial shade from the west (as the afternoon sun is the hottest).
If you live in a drier climate and you’d like more information about the best drought-tolerant fruiting plants, check out my other post: 30 Best Drought-Tolerant Fruit and Nut Trees (Ranked).
If temperatures fall below -20ºF to -30ºF (the standard zone 4 minimum temperature), strawberry plants will likely start to die.
For outdoor strawberry plants, you can insulate the plant and its roots by providing it with mulch. You can also use windbreaks such as walls or other plants to reduce the effects of windchill. Greenhouses or high tunnels will also work.
I would suggest not moving potted strawberry plants indoors during the winter as they typically require 200-300 chill hours to fruit properly once spring arrives. Chill hours are the number of hours under 45ºF.
Since indoor temperatures rarely get this low, it’s normally not a good idea to bring them inside.
Another issue with moving a strawberry plant indoors is that the central heat indoors can dry out the plant quickly.
I found out about the effects of central heat the hard way.
We had a surprise snowstorm last year here in Austin, Texas, and I moved my potted Meyer lemon tree inside. However, it quickly started losing its leaves. After moving it into a cooler room, it quickly started growing new leaves (see the photo below).
When it comes to sheltering your potted strawberry plant during temperatures below -30ºF, move it to a basement or another cool, sheltered location. Try to keep the temperature under 45ºF to maintain the plant’s chill hours if possible.
3. Transplant Shock
If your strawberry plant was recently planted or repotted, and its leaves are wilting or drooping, it’s likely due to transplant shock. Transplant shock occurs when a plant is exposed to a new environment and has to establish a new root system.
Avoid transplanting strawberry plants unless necessary as it can take up to 1 year for recovery.
To help avoid transplant shock, I like to plant with the following steps in mind:
- Have the new ground (or pot) prepared
- Remove as much of the plant’s current topsoil as possible, without damaging the shallow roots
- Grab the base of the plant’s stem and wiggle lightly
- Using your other hand, scoop up and support the rootball
- Lightly place the plant in the new ground (or pot) and fill it in
- Make sure the soil is at the same level on the plant as before
- Apply 2 inches of compost and 4-12 inches of mulch to the top of the soil
- Water generously and add more soil as needed
You can typically tell if your strawberry plant has root rot if the soil is staying sopping wet and starts smelling. As mentioned earlier, allowing the soil to dry out or repotting strawberry plants with new potting soil are the best ways to amend this disease.
When my Kaffir lime tree had root rot, it started having a swampy smell and dropping leaves. After repotting it with fresh potting soil, it made a quick recovery!
Verticillium wilt is a fungus that is similar to root rot in that it usually occurs in soils with excess water. Additionally, over-fertilizing can also cause it.
The most susceptible fruit crops that contract verticillium wilt are nightshade (tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants), but other fruiting plants such as strawberry plants can also be infected. Symptoms of this disease include leaves wilting, yellowing, and dropping, and potentially branch dieback.
Prevent and treat verticillium wilt by pruning infected branches, avoiding excess water and fertilizers, and following best gardening practices.
Need More Help?
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- Local Cooperative Extension Services: While we do our best with these articles, sometimes knowledge from a local expert is needed! The USDA partnered with Universities to create these free agriculture extension services. Check out this list to see your local services.
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