Strawberries are essentially woodland plants. The original ancestor is the wild or wood strawberry, Fragaria vesca, which grow across Europe in forest-fringe environments that offer a mixture of sun and shade. In the damp undergrowth and grassland, they enjoy rich, regular mulching from natural leaf mould. Wild strawberry fruits are much smaller than modern commercial varieties, being only the size of a pea, but they are very tasty with a denser, less sweet flavour. Most are red, but yellowish or white varieties are sometimes available. Fruits are borne almost year-round. These are definitely the easiest strawberries to grow, quickly spreading to form a mat of leaves. Unlike other strawberries, they also propagate themselves by seed.
These wild strawberries (also known as alpine strawberries) make an excellent ground cover in partial shade. They are great under fruit trees, among paving stones, or for gardeners who want to avoid weeding under shrubs. I’ve got them growing alongside paths, and they have naturalised under fruit trees all over the garden. If you have children, or have them visiting your garden, a strawberry hunt is always popular. Fruits are often hidden among the leaves.
The fatter, juicier garden strawberries we know today, have been around for 250-odd years, having been hybridised in the 1700s by crossing newly available South American species with the original European woodland plants. Hundreds of varieties have been bred. Some plants fruit around the longest day (at, or close to, Christmas), others fruit in flushes from spring to autumn. Fruit size varies but the fattest fruit aren’t always the tastiest. Try growing a few different types to extend the fruiting season, and to see what suits your garden best.
Modern strawberries are propagated by runners – baby plants that shoot off the parent plant on long, stringy stems. The runner closest to the parent plant is the one that’s most worth keeping as it will crop better than those further down the line. Cut the stem just beyond the first runner, and press the baby plant down into the soil, keeping it in place with a wire peg, or securing it with a stone. Keep the baby plant well anchored until it forms roots.
Plants can be moved to space them out. If doing this, the best time is in winter or spring. Strawberry plants only crop heavily for a few years before getting tired, so replanting the runners is a way of supplying new plants to keep the harvest coming along. To space out plants, take out a third of the oldest ones each year (these can go onto the compost heap) and replace them with last year’s runners. Some gardeners manage this by dividing their strawberry beds into three. The advantage of growing strawberries all together in a bed, rather than dotted through the garden, is that it’s easier to net them against birds when they are in a clump or row.
Strawberries need lots of sun to fruit well and for the fruit to fully ripen however, they still hate to dry out. Prepare a bed with plenty of compost. Planting along a ridge beside a ditch or trough in the soil makes for easy watering. A nice, deep mulch of pine needles is said to improve the flavour while also deterring snails. Seaweed helps retain water and provide nutrients when used as mulch on the surface of the bed or buried under the root zone. Strawberries also do well in large pots, which can be moved into the garden’s sunniest spots when berries are ripening, then kept in shade when out of season.
Birds love ’em!
Birds love the berries as much as humans, and a cover of netting or chicken wire may be needed in peak season. Alternatively, I have read online that you can try painting a few stones red and laying them outside your netting. Birds are soon deterred from your crop after a few pecks of your faux strawberries! I haven’t tried this myself, but it could be something to look forward to next summer.
As well as being delicious, strawberries are rich in iron, potassium and vitamin C. Traditional herbal medicine uses them to treat kidney and liver problems, anaemia, gout and mouth ulcers. Cosmetically, they are a mild bleach, and in the days when a white skin was important, strawberries were mashed onto the face to combat freckles and sunburn or tan. They can also be used to whiten teeth, so if you’re ever stuck in the garden without a toothbrush, rub some strawberries onto your teeth as a toothpaste replacement and mouth freshener.