A Guide to Growing Strawberries

A Guide to Growing Strawberries

21st Dec 2021

Let’s start with some background. Did you know that strawberries aren’t actually berries? From a strictly botanical point of view, they are actually classed as ‘aggregate accessory fruit’ – which doesn’t sound nearly so appealing! The ‘seeds’ that you can see on the outside are not actually seeds at all – they are the ovaries (called ‘achenes’) and the tiny seeds are buried deep inside each one. Very occasionally you may find fruit where leaves are sprouting all over the fruit. This is normally a result of the plant being stressed and is nothing to worry about. Cut the offending fruit off, water and feed the plant and all should return to normal.

Strawberries have been cultivated throughout Europe for centuries. They were used in Roman times for their medicinal properties, and were particularly popular in France. Charles V of France reportedly had over 1200 plants in the royal gardens in the mid 1300’s. These were all wild strawberries – 3 native species had been identified by this time. The first modern strawberry arrived in 1750’s, as a result of hybridising with new strawberry species brought over from Chile and North America.

Flavour

It’s worth noting that almost all the varieties you’ll find in nurserymen’s catalogues have been bred in the last 50 years – in contrast to other fruit, where you will still find many heritage varieties from the Victorian era or even older. This is because there was a huge amount of work done by several research institutes in the post-war period, specifically designed to improve fruit quality and disease-resistance. These new varieties were so superior to the previous ones that all the Victorian strawberries such as Downton and Keen’s Seedling quickly fell out of production. Many people seem to think that ‘older’ varieties had a better flavour and that modern breeding has prioritised disease-resistance over taste, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Supermarket berries are generally picked slightly under ripe to increase shelf-life, so are rarely as good as you could grow in your own garden, no matter which variety you choose. Whilst it is true that wild strawberries have been shown to have higher levels of the ester molecules which are responsible for flavour and aroma, it is the weather which has the single biggest effect on flavour. High levels of sunshine in May and June as the fruit are developing dramatically increase the sweetness levels, so even though strawberries will tolerate semi-shade, plant in full sun to get the best quality fruit. Regular feeding with a high potash fertiliser from April onwards will also help. A liquid tomato feed is ideal, but remember to water the soil and not the plants - keeping the foliage dry helps ward off powdery mildew and other fungal diseases.

Planting

Strawberries love a free-draining soil, ideally in full sun. They do need some moisture to allow the fruit to develop properly and not split, so if you do have a very sandy soil considering mulching in Spring to conserve moisture. Raised beds are ideal, as are containers or even hanging baskets. If your ground is on the heavy side, add plenty of grit and organic matter before planting to improve drainage.

Strawberries naturally produce new plants called runners as soon as they have finished fruiting in late summer. If you have a kindly neighbour with a strawberry patch, this would be an ideal time to get new young plants established as they can be lifted and replanted in a short space of time. Nurseries and garden centres tend to sell runners as bare-root plants during the winter months, as it is much easier to store the plants for longer periods of time through the winter when they are fully dormant. You can plant these bare-root runners out anytime in the winter months, but a good tip is to pot them up first and keep them in a cold greenhouse, cold frame or polytunnel until spring. They will root through quickly and be bursting into life just at the time the soil starts to warm up. This is especially true if you have heavy ground – strawberries will not like spending the first few months of their life in cold wet clay, and can easily rot off before they have had a chance to establish.

A little 9cm pot is ideal – the plants will only be in there for a short time before they are planted out, so any bigger is a waste of compost. Good quality multi-purpose compost is fine, but I like to add about 25% of a loam-based compost such as John Innes No2. When you buy runners in winter, the foliage may well look a little worse for wear – remove any damaged or dead foliage. It doesn’t matter how dishevelled the leaves may look, but you do want the growing point of the plant to be nice and firm. Plant with the growing point just level with the soil surface and water once to get the soil to settle around the roots. Place in a sunny, slightly sheltered position and keep an eye on the watering. Remember it is far better to under-water rather than over-water at this stage, as they are only making root growth, but increase watering slightly as soon as new foliage starts to emerge.

Varieties:

Catalogues will generally divide strawberries into early, mid and late season varieties, as well as everbearers which set small amounts of fruit throughout the summer. Most strawberries come into flower and fruit as a response to day length. As soon as the days start to shorten, they cease fruit production. Ever bearing varieties are 'day neutral', so they tend to set a first flush in July and the carry on producing well into September..As ever when planning, concentrate on what you want to do with the fruit when deciding on varieties. If you want to make vats of jam, plant varieties which will all crop at the same time. If you want a few fruit for eating fresh then spread the season to get a long cropping period.

Finally – studies with other fruit have shown that serving them with cream dramatically reduces the flavour and aroma. Instead try serving with mint leaves, a small dusting of sugar and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Heaven!