STRETCHING THE STRAWBERRY SEASON

Wed, 15/03/2017 - 14:03 -- Nic Wilson
How to grow strawberries

Strawberries and cream, scones and jam, summer puddings – desserts reminiscent of childhood memories, lazy summer days in the garden, family picnics and afternoons watching tennis.

Strawberries opitimise British summers like no other fruit, and with homegrown crops you have full advantage of the best tasting varieties that can be picked perfectly  ripe, still warm from the sun.

Strawberry plants will produce fruit for three years before needing replacing in a different area to avoid a buildup of viruses which reduce fruit production. Bare-rooted runners and potted plants are often planted in the autumn, but all is not lost if your strawberry bed is still empty. You can plant from March to June – but these plants should not be allowed to fruit this year. Instead, remove flowers so the plant can concentrate its energy on establishing a healthy root system for bountiful harvests next year.

Strawberries require a site in full sun and prefer light, well-drained, fertile soil with a pH of 6-6.5 (slightly acid), although mine crop fairly well on alkaline soil. They can be grown through plastic sheeting laid across raised beds or mulched with straw later in the season to protect the fruits. Plants should be spaced 45cm apart with 1m between rows and it is important that the plant crown is level or slightly raised above the soil.

James Wong recommends ‘Honeoye’ as an early and heavy cropper with a tropical flavour, ‘Marshmello’ as a soft, melt-in-the-mouth mid-season variety and ‘Malwina’ for large, deep red late strawberries rich in anthocyanins. Everbearers or (perpetual fruiting strawberries) crop less heavily but over a longer period, so are good for extending the season. ‘Mara des Bois’ has an intense flavour and ‘Aromel’ produces juicy fruit with an extremely sweet taste.

Strawberries are perfect for container gardening and work particularly well in hanging baskets where the fruits can be kept away from slugs. Plant them in peat-free compost, add controlled-release fertilizer and water thoroughly. Ensure pots are kept well-watered throughout the summer.

Alpine strawberries (Fragraria vesca) can also be sown this month. Useful as edible groundcover in ornamental borders, around established fruit bushes and trees or between paving stones, these tiny jewels are great to snack on as you garden and are a perfect sized crop for children to gather. Best of all, alpine strawberries are happy in semi-shade as well as full sun. I grow ‘Baron Solemacher’ and ‘White Soul’ around my cordon apple trees and on my binstore green roof. ‘White Soul’ is a good choice as the birds seem to be oblivious to its juicy, tropical tasting, white fruits. I also grow alpine strawberries in large pots underplanted with tulips for a longer period of seasonal interest.

Alpine strawberry seeds should be sown at 21°C on the surface of good quality seed compost in a propagator or covered with a plastic bag. Keep the soil moist and germination should take between 14-30 days. Prick out seedlings and grow on in cooler conditions until the end of May when they can be hardened off and planted outside. Alpine strawberries are hardy and should fruit for years to come, in fact, they are so easy to grow that they can become a weed, but they are easily managed by removing unwanted seedlings.

If you have an established strawberry patch, now is an ideal time to cover some of the plants with a cloche to encourage an earlier harvest (they will crop 7-10 days earlier than uncovered plants). Make sure that you roll up the sides of the cloche when the flowers appear to allow insects to pollinate them. If your plants are in pots or hanging baskets, they can be brought into the greenhouse to achieve the same result as long as insects still have access. With careful choice of cultivars and some crop protection, your strawberry season can begin in May and you’ll still have that summer feeling as you pick the final fruits in October.

By Nic Wilson

Nic Wilson is a garden designer, garden writer and enthusiastic home grower (especially of more unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs).  She enjoys volunteering in her local community garden and experimenting in the kitchen with crops from her garden, allotment and the hedgerows.