Hero of the Month: Strawberry

To say that a strawberry is a fruit, is to call Jimmy Hendrix a guitar player. Sure, it’s true, but it also misses the point entirely. The strawberry is the ace of the garden and the king of the plate. It is an object of desire equally welcomed in Eros’ private bath house as it is a child’s lunch box. But it’s not just daiquiri makers that covet this sweet flesh- rats, slugs, birds and bats are similarly enamoured. Like looking at a camp fire, the strawberry stirs some primal longing within all of us.

Although we are all very familiar with the summer-bearing supermarket strawberry, few people realise that there are hundreds of weird and wonderful varieties that you can grow yourself. As is often the case, what we see on the shelves has been selected for commercial characteristics such as size, yield and disease resistance, often at the expensive to taste. There are red, white, blue, black, green and even purple strawberries. Consider the pineberry, a white strawberry with red seeds and a pineapple like taste. Hands up if you’d like to grow this? Thought so.

Once you have settled on a preferred variety, the best option is to start with a seedling (or a runner if you have access to existing plants). Find a site with well draining soil and feel free to add plenty of organic matter such as compost. Strawberries do best in full sun, so share your favourite sun baking spot.

They are also a great small-space variety and prime candidate for growing in a pot or wall garden unit. The key is to choose the best quality potting mix. Get the good stuff, the kind of premium soil that exudes fecundity like a Persian den of sin with Leonard Cohen softly strumming in the corner.

Strawberries like water, but don’t want to be in a sloppy bog. Adding surface mulch will help to regulate moisture levels and if you have good soil, than you have already won half of this battle. Hand watering each morning is a good option, while using a drip irrigation system is an even better approach. We typically plant strawberries during the hottest parts of the year, which means they require daily watering for at least the first month or two, or until the plants become established and the weather cools off. A great way to get around this watering malarkey is to plant into a wicking bed system. This allows plants to draw exactly the water that they require and cuts out the need for daily human intervention.

While the most common varieties will flower and fruit once per year, there are also  everbearing varieties that will produce two or even three times. Once the first flowers appear, it typically takes about four or five weeks for fruit to form and, once formed, berries will ripen within about 10 days.

Harvesting is a balancing act, holding off long enough to allow the fruit to ripen and sweeten up. To ensure maximum freshness, be sure to pick strawberries during the cooler part of the morning or on cloudy days. Picking on hot and sunny days will dramatically decrease their shelf life and result in them softening and spoiling more rapidly.

Unfortunately, you may not have the time to carefully consider your perfect harvest, given that the rats, slugs, next door neighbours kids, etc are all biding their time too. The key is not to be too greedy, but also to deploy defensive gardening techniques. Crop cages and slug traps will keep some of the less cunning wildlife out of the patch. However, humans will pose the biggest challenge and it is best to not reveal your crop to any children under the age of 10 while fruiting is in progress.

As your strawberry plant grows, it will begin to send out wiry “runners” - long stems with small clumps of foliage. These are essentially ready-to-plant seedlings that sprawl outwards from an established plant. When left to their own devices, runners will eventual settle on the ground to colonise and develop into new strawberry plants. Such is nature’s way.

You can, however, take control of this process by simply clipping the seedling free of its vine (see transplanting strawberry runners video here). Once cut, these small strawberry seedlings can be planted directly into the patch and with the right level of care will soon take as new plants. Regardless of whether you want to expand your strawberry fields, runners should be cut free from the plant to refocus energy on fruit production. 

Plants peak after two to three years. Under ideal conditions, a strawberry plant can live up to 5-6 years.  After 3 productive years, however, they usually begin to lose their vigour, and the yield of strawberries begins to decline rapidly.  Eventually, as age progresses and the strawberry plant weakens, strawberries usually succumb opportunistic fungi or other and ends with a brown, withered, decomposing mass. Such an unceremonious end to a lifetime of admiration.

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