Gardening guru PETER CUNDALL offers his tried and true tips for growing wonderfully sweet, aromatic and productive strawberries in your own backyard.
Tips for growing the berry best summer fruit
Strawberry plants take up little space, so can be grown to perfection in any sunny part of the open garden
NEW, potted-up strawberry plants are on sale at most garden centres. They are more expensive than the bare-rooted runners available in winter, but are excellent value.
Strawberries must surely be the tastiest source of vitamin C. There are many varieties but those grown in cool districts, with cold winters are by far the tastiest.
Most of us have innocently bought those enormous, brightly-coloured but almost tasteless, tropic-grown strawberries in winter and felt disappointed. We can compensate to some extent by growing our own right now.
Strawberry plants take up little space, so can be grown to perfection in any sunny part of the open garden, or for flat dwellers, in pots, tubs, window boxes and even hanging baskets.
In fact, all the strawberries most familStrawberry ies can eat or preserve can be grown in a few square metres of well-drained, sunny soil.
Most productive plants send out several runners during summer. Those from new, certified, disease-free plants may be cut free and planted out as soon as they form a good root system.
Runners from older plants carry diseases, despite appearing quite healthy so don’t bother using them. Always avoid using strawberry runners from other people’s gardens for the same reason.
plants grow best in acidic soils. That definitely means no lime, or even fire ashes. Any reasonably-fertile soil in full sun suits them. Fertility is always improved if lots of decayed organic matter, especially decomposed autumn leaves are mixed in.
Ideal fertilisers include pulverised sheep and cow manure, especially the really rotten stuff. The droppings from most grazing animals are mainly organic matter anyway but perfect soil conditioners.
Last year I saw some of the healthiest, most productive strawberry plants I’ve ever come across which had been grown in soil laced with biochar and the acidic, blackened scrapings from beneath an old, conifer hedge. Production of wonderfully sweet, aromatic strawberries was enormous and continued for month after month over summer and early autumn.
Most, well-sized, potted-up strawberry plants are already coming into flower even at garden centres. If planted out now into prepared ground – or potted-on into larger containers – will begin bearing small crops of tasty berries by Christmas or earlier.
As the first pale-green berries form, start spreading thick layers of clean, slightly loose straw around the plants. This means lifting flower and berry trusses so the straw can be tucked underneath, leaving the swelling berries resting on top, well clear of the soil.
Strawberries ripen quickly, so need to be constantly picked as they become fully coloured. Actively-growing mature plants growing in ideal conditions become hugely productive.
In beds containing a dozen or more plants, harvesting becomes a daily operation. Protection from birds is essential. Drive in short stakes around and between plants, place a small pot upside down on the top of each. This enables netting to be quickly stretched over an entire strawberry patch without snagging after each harvesting operation.
When liquid manure is to be applied, carefully dribble it around the bases of the plants to avoid getting berries contaminated. I place plastic cake covers over plants for extra protection while applying liquid manures.
Keep well watered throughout summer applying liquid fertilisers and compost tea every 10 days. As often as possible go over every plant to probe deeply into crowns to flip out skulking slugs and snails.
It is most important to keep beds weeded because strawberry plants are poor competitors. In well-mulched strawberry beds, most weeds tend to form surface roots so are easily pulled out.
Beds can rapidly become congested and these conditions always attract diseases and slugs. So cut away runners as fast as they form. Plants three years old and older are virtually non-productive and these plants should be dug out now, dumped and replaced.
In early winter, scape away all mulching materials, runners and the disease and slug-infested debris of dead leaves and mouldy fruit.
Proven varieties: Sweetheart (extra sweet grown from seed); Redgauntlet (large, fragrant); Tioga (small, dull red, very sweet); Cambridge Vigour (excellent bearer); Alinta (outstanding, dark red, tasty berries); and Torrey (firm, well-flavoured berries).