Most of the strawberries we cultivate are summer-fruiting, though there are also perpetual or ‘everbearing’ strawberries which tend to be smaller than summer varieties and bear fruit from early summer right into early autumn.
Strawberries are started off as young plants (runners) and transplanted directly into the soil or into a container from March to mid July (or October for autumn planting). Cold stored runners (young plants which have been stored under carefully controlled cool conditions) will often flower in as little as 60 days from planting. However, for cropping in the same season, early planting is recommended.
Though strawberry plants will tolerate most soils as long as they are well-draining, in autumn it’s a good idea to add well-rotted organic matter as this will help to create a humus-rich soil. Choose a sunny, sheltered spot, though avoid planting in soil where strawberries have been growing in the previous three years.
Plants should be spaced at a distance of 38cm (15in) between each one and 76cm (30in) between rows. Take care not to bury the crown under the soil or let it protrude too much – just slightly above the surface of the soil is perfect. Water plants regularly, especially during dry spells, though avoid getting the crowns wet as this can cause them to rot.
About every 10 days or so give the plants a high potash liquid feed, such as that you give tomato plants, as this will provide the nutrients that help the fruit to develop.However, it is important to prevent the fruit having direct contact with the soil as this will cause it to rot. Consequently, it is usual to mulch between rows and in and around the plants. This will also maintain moisture in the soil and help to suppress weeds.
Straw is traditionally used, but there are other options too, including planting through black polythene, weed suppressant fabric or specifically designed mats that can be placed around the neck of each plant. Strawberry plants develop ‘runners’ (stolons) during the summer.
These are shoots that develop plantlets and it is these, once separated from the parent plant, that become new plants in their own right. Cut off any runners during the flowering and fruiting period to avoid an overcrowded strawberry patch (unless you intend to propagate some new plants to replace the old) and also to focus all the nutrition on the fruit rather than new plants.
If you don’t have a lot of space, strawberries can be grown very well in pots, tubs, and recycled ontainers of various kinds. Strawberries have a natural habit of hanging down so growing in containers is a perfect match. Work on the principle of four plants to a 25cm (10in) pot. Use multipurpose compost and mix in some slow release fertiliser.
Avoid high nitrogen feeds as these will tend to produce lots of leafy growth at the expense of fruit. You will need to make sure these plants are watered more regularly than those that are planted directly into the ground and they will need feeding with liquid potash feed (tomato plant feed) about once a week once they are flowering and fruiting.
The advantage of containers is that it’s easier to check for slugs and, as the strawberries themselves naturally hang from the sides of the container, they can be picked more easily.
Strawberries can be ‘forced’ or made to fruit a little earlier by growing them under a cloche, in a polytunnel or a greenhouse where the extra warmth will be conducive to faster growth (by about 10 days). One thing to remember, however, is that once the flowers appear, they will need pollinating.
One option if they are being grown in containers is to take them outside and let the bees do their work. Alternatively, you will need to hand pollinate by using an artist’s brush so that the pollen on the stamens on the outer rim of the inner flower is transferred to the stigma in the centre of the flower.
Strawberries are ready to harvest when they have turned red (except for white varieties of course) and are picked by squeezing gently and pulling, taking the green hull (or calyx) with it as this prolongs its storage life. After you have harvested all your lovely strawberries, lift any straw and add it to the compost heap, remove netting to allow the birds to get to the insects and cut off and destroy any dead or damaged leaves.
At the end of August, cut the runners off from the parent plant and pot up – aiming for four or five from one plant. Leave your strawberry plants outside throughout the autumn and winter as they need a cold spell to stimulate flowering later on. When you have used the same plants for three years, dig them up and discard and bring in new plants to replace them.
Strawberries can suffer from various fungal diseases such as grey mould, powdery mildew and leaf spot. If you notice any infected leaves, remove them immediately and destroy them. Strawberries can also be at the mercy of seed beetles, red spider mites and vine weevils, but slugs and snails usually represent a bigger problem so you will need to use your preferred slug prevention methods.
Of course, just as much as we like strawberries, so do birds, so once your plants start to bear fruit you will need to cover your strawberries with bird netting, otherwise your precious soft fruit will soon be gobbled up by winged trespassers.
For this, you can either buy a purpose-built frame, which you can buy online or from your local garden centre, or construct your own from bamboo canes and bird netting. Containing mice and squirrels is more of a challenge, so make it a point of practice to always pick as soon as you can, don’t leave the fruit hanging!
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