Growing fruit in a container is a bit of a faff. You are responsible for all the watering, constantly checking to make sure the compost is neither too wet or bone dry. You’ll need to feed the plants regularly, and also turn the container occasionally so all the fruit ripens. The crop is never going to be anywhere near as large as with plants growing in open-ground. And if the plant needs to produce constant new growth to fruit, such as blackcurrants, raspberries or blackberries, its twice as hard. Luckily, some fruit respond well to growing in a container, and this allows us to fit extra plants into our gardens if they are already full, or make temporary use of a sunny patio to extend the fruit garden. Strawberries are one such fruit, and so let’s see how to use pots and troughs to grow this quintessential taste of the British Summer.
If you are growing strawberries in pots, the number one criterion for me is flavour. I’m not interested in yield – there is never going to be a huge quantity anyway – and if I’m going to water, feed and generally cosset these plants, I want the fruit to be out of this world. Here are my top recommendations for the tastiest berries.
Gariguette. A super variety from the Provence area of France, originally bred in the 1970’s, and with all the ‘old-fashioned’ strawberry flavour that is often claimed but sadly rarely present in some of the modern varieties. It remains the most widely grown variety in France, and for good reason – the characteristically slim, tapered fruit of a bright orange-red harbour the sweetest of flesh, with a hint of acidity to balance. The scent is divine when the fruit are warmed by the summer sun. Early to crop.
Royal Sovereign. Just about the only ‘heritage’ variety still available, as modern varieties are far superior in terms of yield and disease-resistance. Royal Sovereign however, manages to keep a loyal following due to the superb flavour. Originally bred in 1892 by Thomas Laxton, the large conical dark red fruit taste absolutely delicious, making shop-bought fruit seem insipid in comparison.
Alpine/ Woodland. These strawberries can be found listed under “alpine strawberry”, “woodland strawberry” or “wild strawberry”, but they are all forms of the species Fragaria vesca. The plants are generally less vigorous than modern hybrids – vesca is the Latin for thin or feeble – and the fruits are much smaller, but the huge flavour belies their diminutive size. Mara de Bois is one of the most popular varieties, but also look out for ‘Yellow Wonder’ which produces pale yellow fruit, pretty as a picture and just as delicious. Perfect for containers and hanging baskets, the fruit spill over the edge to make picking easy.
Everbearers. My other favourite strawberries for growing in pots are the everbearing types. Most strawberries respond to day length when producing flowers and fruit, and stop production as soon as the days start to shorten. Some, however, will produce crops continuously from June to September, and are known as ‘day neutral’ or ’everbearers’. You’ll never get a huge amount of fruit all in one go, so not a good choice if you are looking to produce a vat of jam to win the local village show, but ideal if you need a small quantity of fresh fruits every few days. Flamenco is one of the best – heavy cropping and top-quality fruit.
Choice of container.
Any container, pot or hanging basket will work to a degree, but some will be better than others. Terracotta pots look lovely, but have a tendency to dry out quickly as moisture evaporates through the pot walls, so line with a collar of plastic if necessary. Adequate drainage is the other main consideration – strawberries hate to be in waterlogged soil – so drill extra holes if necessary, use crocks in the bottom of the pot and raise the pot up on pot feet or bricks so excess water can drain away. Otherwise, the choice is up to you, you can go as quirky or as practical and utilitarian as you like!
The choice offered at most garden centres can be bewildering, and it is easy to think that all composts are the same – but they aren’t! The quality can vary enormously, so I’d always recommend going for a reputable brand. As with most things in life, quality costs a little more, so beware of opting for the cheapest you can find as plants will struggle and crops will be poor - it’s a false economy. Peat-free compost has improved considerably in the past ten years, and results can be extremely good, but maintaining even moisture levels can be tricky, so for strawberries I’d recommend including at least some loam-based compost, such as John Innes No2. It stops the compost from drying out too quickly, and contains the necessary fertiliser for the first 8-10 weeks after planting. After this time, look to apply a high potash feed such as a liquid tomato fertiliser every two weeks as the plants flower and fruit. This will increase yields, and also helps improve the flavour.