Have you ever found yourself looking over your shoulder, to check no one is looking, as you pick a few ripe strawberries? I have. For some reason, I always feel naughty, like someone will tell me off if I’m caught. It is ridiculous. I think this reaction stems from my nana, in whose garden helping yourself to berries without permission was a definite no-no.
Homegrown strawberries are mouth-wateringly delicious. The flavour and taste of strawberries ripened on the plant cannot be trumped by anything bought from the store, no matter how fresh they are.
Strawberries are an easy crop to grow and it is no surprise that they are one of the world’s favourite fruit. They’re best planted in winter and early spring, when the ground temperatures are cold. At first, all the growth happens under the soil, as the roots establish themselves. The colder soil temperatures stimulate flower-bud development and, subsequently, fruiting ability and capacity. When the warmer weather arrives, the plant springs into action above the soil and new season’s foliage and flowers will appear.
Where to grow
Full sun is mandatory for strawberries. No sun equals poor flower production and, worse still, less fruit that will have little flavour and struggle to ripen.
The soil should be friable (loose) and fertile. Each season, reward and refresh berry beds with layers of chicken manure and strawberry food.
Strawberries are gross feeders and quickly use available nutrients in the soil. These nutrients need to be replaced to allow the berries to keep fruiting.
Ideally, the soil should be moist, but not waterlogged. In some areas, this can be a challenge, particularly over winter. Growing your strawberries on mounds is a good way to improve drainage, and raised beds or containers can be used, too.
The ground-covering habit of strawberries makes them an ideal option for pots, tubs and hanging baskets. Make sure, when growing them in any sort of container, that it is big enough to provide plenty of room for the roots of the plants to develop.
Restrictions on root development will impede the growth of the plant. To give you an idea, a 30cm hanging basket will hold about three plants with ease, and five at a push.
Specific strawberry planting and potting mix take all the guesswork out of filling containers and planters, and premium potting mixes work, too. Don’t scrimp and use cheap compost or old potting mixes, these will lack fertility and the ability to promote a healthy, lush crop. The plants need a good foundation to produce a bumper harvest.
Every strawberry patch has a life period of about three years. The first year the crop will be average, with the second and third years being the best. After that, the plants lose vigour, harvest diminishes and plants need to be replaced.
A position protected from wind is also useful as numerous insects are part of the pollination process and strong winds can result in poor fruit development.
Working out how many to plant can be a challenge. You may be governed by the amount of space you have available. Cramming too many into a small space is not ideal; the plants will compete with each other for nutrients, sunlight and water, and the lack of air movement will cause pest and disease problems as well.
In the garden, allow 30-50cm between plants, and 60-70cm between rows. Nine plants per square metre is a good fit. Work on 6-10 plants per person in the household. For example, a four-person family requires 24-40 plants.
Early in the season, as the plants start actively growing, runners come out from the centre of the plant. Remove these to encourage the plant to put more effort into producing flowers and fruit. Midsummer, let a few develop to grow on as replacement plants.
Protection and straw
Layers of straw mulch around the plants will keep the weeds away as well as help the soil retain moisture. It also protects the berries from becoming dirty or damaged.
When berries start appearing, protect and cover the plant with netting, mesh or tunnels to deter birds and small animals.
Existing strawberry beds
Remove all the dead and old leaves before the new season’s growth starts and dig out any runners that will compete for nutrients around the main plants. Sprinkle strawberry food around the drip line and add a new layer of straw mulch around the crowns, if need be.
The best bit is harvesting. Choose those that are fully ripe on the plant as they do not ripen further once picked. Berries ripen 4-6 weeks after the flowers mature. Once ripe, they deteriorate quickly if left on the plants for more than a few days. Regular harvesting will promote new flower stems to appear.