Delving Deeper into the Concept of Supplemental Chill
Supplemental chill, also known as cold conditioning, takes place after harvest of the transplants, which have gone dormant because of their exposure to the decreasing daylength and lower temperatures of the nursery fields of Northern California where they are grown. Postharvest supplemental chill occurs in a constant near freezing temperature, in the dark and when the transplant has no to very few leaves left on it.
What supplemental chill is actually doing is breaking (reversing) plant dormancy, which sets into motion a series of metabolic events in the plant resulting in a promotion of vegetative growth and inhibition of new inflorescence formation. Petioles grow longer, leaf blades get bigger and more runners are formed as dormancy is broken through supplemental chill. All of this is consistent with the industry understanding that a longer period of supplemental chill results in more plant vigor, again meaning more vegetative growth and less fruiting. The challenge for the berry grower is to strike a balance between the vigor of vegetative growth and the fruiting which is greatly desired.
Growers already know this, but berry cultivars vary greatly in their sensitivity to the dormancy breaking supplemental chill. Generally speaking, short day strawberry varieties need very little – something on the order of one to three days - to break dormancy and in fact most become tremendously vegetative when chilled in excess over the recommended few days. In contrast, day neutral varieties need substantially more days of chill, most often in the range of one to two weeks, to develop the normal balance of vigor and fruiting following planting. Since longer periods of chill are associated with greater vegetative vigor, organic growers tend to chill their plants longer before planting, in the range of 30% longer, so as to enable the plant to handle less hospitable soil environments.