I've lost count of the number of times I have been disappointed by supermarket-bought strawberries. Often lacking in the taste department (and usually not even fully ripe!), they're a bland, hard offering next to the home-grown alternative. It's no wonder really – these strawberries have to travel long distances and must be able to withstand the knocks that go with it. It means that the varieties of strawbs destined for stores must be hard-skinned and exhibit a long shelf life. This is fair enough really, as the store owner has to be able to make a profit. Nevertheless, these qualities are in perfectly inverse correlation to what we discerning kitchen gardeners are after!
Strawberries are without doubt one of life's little luxuries and to get the best you have to grow them yourself. Thankfully this isn't difficult and summer's the ideal time to break ground and establish your own productive – and oh so delicious – strawberry bed. Grow them on the productive plot and you can try out a range of varieties, each with a subtly different taste and each selected to extend the cropping season to as long as blissfully possible.
Preparing Soil for Strawberry Plants
It is worth positioning your strawberry bed in a warm and sunny part of the garden, avoiding any frost pockets so that the springtime flowers don't get clobbered and turn to mush. The warmth of a sheltered spot will also encourage the fruits to develop their full aroma – picked in the gentle heat of summer's afternoon your strawberries will have a truly irresistible scent and their flavour will be that much more pronounced.
The plants have shallow roots, so the soil you grow them in needs to be rich and free-draining, yet able to hold moisture. Initial ground preparations can go a long way to improving ground conditions if yours is far from ideal. Double dig the soil, incorporating plenty of well-rotted organic matter such as garden-made compost. If you have a clay-based soil, improve its drainage by planting your strawberries atop ridges or into raised beds. Strawberries are members of the rose family, so avoid soil that's had roses or other family members growing in it; at this stage a clean start free of any potential soil disease issues will make all the difference.
Think logically about the layout of your strawberry bed. Plants will need to be spaced 45cm (18in) apart within the row, with rows set at least 60cm (2ft) apart. It is far better to make your bed two or three rows wide than to have one long, single row. A squat rectangular bed such as this will be easier to net against birds or protect with fleece at the crucial flowering stage.
Types of Strawberries
In summer you have a choice between planting potted 'cold-stored' plants or fresh, bare-root plants raised by mist propagation. A wider choice of traditionally raised bare-root plants becomes available from autumn. Whatever type of plant you decide to start off with, it's worth growing a range of different varieties, of which there are two options to select from: short-day types and perpetual types.
Short-day varieties initiate their flowers while the days are still short (in early spring) to yield their tempting fruits by summer. Select three or more varieties of short-day types with different cropping periods and you could be picking fruits from early summer, or even late spring, right up until late summer. A suitable season-maximising trio might be, for example, early 'Honeoye' followed by mid-season 'Hapil' and concluding with late-to-crop 'Fenella' (each, incidentally, boasting superb flavour and performance!).
Perpetual varieties crop in bouts throughout the summer months. While this is undoubtedly an advantage, plants tend to become exhausted after just two years, compared to short-day strawbs which will carry on fruiting for four to five. The canny grower will set up their strawberry beds in such a way that each new bed is planted one year before a mature bed is due to retire, thereby ensuring no interruption to supply.
Set strawberries into the ground so that the crown of each plant (where the stems emerge from the base of the plant) sits on the soil surface. Don't rush this job! Crowns set too deep run the risk of sitting in damp soil and rotting, while crowns left too high could dry out and fail; getting the balance right is essential. Bare-rooted plants will need their roots fanned out into the soil so that they can have fresh space to root into; trim any excessively long roots to about 10cm (4in).
Water the plants into place to settle the soil around the roots and then keep the ground-free to give your plants a trouble-free start to life. You will need to keep a close eye on soil moisture levels to keep these shallow rooters happy. A mulch will help lock in the moisture but be careful not to swamp the delicate crown at this early stage.
And now the hard part – you must resist the temptation to pick any strawberries during the first season; wait until next year. Hard as it may be, should your plants start to flower you must cut back the flowering stems to where they emerge. This hard-heartedness will pay dividends next year with more fruits from bulkier plants.
Using Strawberry Runners
If you already have healthy, disease-free and vigorous strawberry plants then it's possible to propagate them from the runners they produce. These small clusters of leaves at the tip of long, wiry stems can be pushed down onto the soil or pots of compost in order to root. Peg or weigh them down with a stone to ensure the base of this cluster is in contact with the soil. Within a month or so the runner will have rooted and can be cut free from the mother plant and relocated to a fresh strawberry bed.
You can read more about propagating from runners in our article How to Grow New Strawberry Plants From Runners and the general care of established strawberries in our article Summer Strawberries.
With a strawberry bed up and running you can look forward to summers of sweet, aromatic bliss. If you've yet to try home-grown strawberries let me assure you you're in for a real treat!
By Benedict Vanheems.