STRAWBERRIES IN YOUR GARDEN

Perhaps the most popular of all soft fruits, strawberries are delicious in fruit salads, with cream and sugar or just on their own, fresh-picked and still warm from the sun.

Types of strawberry

There are three types of strawberry – summer fruiters, which crop once in early to mid summer; perpetual (also known as everbearing or remontant strawberries), which produce several crops in succession between early summer and mid autumn; and alpine strawberries, much appreciated by gourmets for their rich, sweet flavour.

In a large garden, strawberries can be picked from late spring to mid autumn if a number of selected varieties are planted, and cloches are used to extend the growing season. A small patch of ground will do, or any properly drained container – from the specially designed strawberry pots and towerpots to hanging baskets and window boxes.

SUMMER FRUITERS, PERPETUALS

These are usually grown from small plants called runners since it takes too long to grow them from seed. They are sold in pots or bare rooted in bunches.

Soil and site preparation

Strawberries like a sunny site and rich, well-drained, slightly acid soil, but they will grow in any soil, even chalk, if it is well manured. Two weeks before planting dig over the ground and work in plenty of well-rotted compost and a general fertilizer.

Plant early varieties in a shel-tered position and main crops in an open sunny bed, facing south.

Change the site of your straw-berry bed every three years to prevent the build-up of pests and diseases and give the soil a rest.

Planting

Strawberries give a quicker return than any other fruit – plants that are set out in late summer will fruit early the following summer. But it is an advantage to get off to an early start.

Summer fruiters Plant as early as possible – between mid to late summer, and certainly no later than early autumn – to get a good first crop the following year. They shouldn’t need any winter protection.

If you delay planting until late autumn, or early to mid spring, the plants probably won’t estab-lish themselves in their first year. In this case, remove any flowers during this first year to encourage fruiting in their second season.

Summer fruiters usually crop for three seasons. But some gardeners choose to grow them as annuals -planting young plantlets each year. This produces higher quality fruit and prevents virus diseases, but also reduces the yield. Perpetual strawberries Plant in mid to late autumn to produce fruit the following year. Remove any flowers appearing before early summer, so that those following on provide a succession of fruit from mid summer.

You can plant perpetuals in early spring to fruit the same year. Remove flowers that appear be-fore late spring. The first fruits will appear about six weeks after this and may be poor. Another much heavier crop comes later.

Replace perpetuals each year as the size and weight of the crop deteriorate in the second year.

If you are using pot-grown plants, transplant them into the prepared bed and just cover with soil. Space them 45cm (18 in) apart in blocks, or in rows 75cm (30in) apart.

If the young plants are not pot grown plant them firmly to elimi-nate all harmful air pockets.

Care and maintenance

Water the plants thoroughly just after planting and during dry spells. As the fruits begin to ripen, water sparingly and only in the morning to prevent mould. Use strawberry mats, polythene sheeting or straw to keep the fruit clean.

Feed with sulphate of potash at the rate of 15g per sq m (I/2oz per sq yd) in mid winter. If the soil is light or growth is poor, feed again in mid spring.

Scatter slug pellets among the plants when the developing strawberries are heavy enough to weigh down the trusses. Protect plants from birds and squirrels by covering with netting.

Avoid handling the fruit – pick each berry by the stalk.

Clearing out the bed

When the strawberries have finished cropping in autumn, clear up the strawberry bed.

With summer fruiters in their first and second year, cut off the old leaves and unwanted runners. Rake off and dispose of any old straw and leaves to remove pests and diseases. Fork the soil lightly.

With perpetuals grown for one year only, or summer fruiters in their third year, dig up the plants and dispose of them.

Forcing strawberries

Strawberries grow well under cover – the protected crop is ready up to three weeks earlier than the unprotected one.

Cloches or polythene tunnels Cover between mid winter and early spring. For a late crop cover perpetuals in early to mid autumn of the year after planting. Cold frames Use pot-grown straw-berries or alternatively, in mid to late summer, put newly rooted runners directly into the soil in a cold frame 30cm (12in) apart. Do not cover until mid winter. Then continue as for strawberries grown under cloches.

Greenhouses In mid winter put a batch of pot-grown strawberries into a cool greenhouse. The fruits should be ready in late spring. If the greenhouse is heated, gradually increase the temperature as the flowers appear. The fruit should be ripe by early spring.

What can go wrong

Aphids and glasshouse red spider mites are the most common pests, causing stunted growth and yellowy leaves. Slugs, snails and beetles like to eat the fruits.

The most likely disorders are virus diseases, frost damage, grey mould and leaf spot.

PRODUCING THE BEST CROPS

ALPINES

The fruits of alpine strawberries are smaller than other kinds but they are full of flavour. The plants make an attractive ground cover and will survive in partial shade.

These strawberries thrive on rich, well-drained, slightly acid soil. Grow them each year from seed (most varieties don’t produce runners) or buy young plants in mid to late spring.

The soil and site preparation is much the same as for other types of strawberry. Sow seeds in early autumn in pots of seed compost. Alternatively, sow them in early spring under glass. Cover with glass and paper and keep at 20°C (68°F) until germination.

Germination is erratic, but the seedlings should be ready for pricking out by late autumn. Transplant into trays of potting compost at 2.5cm (lin) intervals.

Overwinter the plants in a cold frame or cold greenhouse before planting them out in mid to late spring. Plant every 30cm (12in) in rows the same distance apart.

Protect with cloches if there is frost about when they start flowering in late spring. Keep the soil moist and feed every two weeks with liquid feed.

Alpine strawberries fruit over a comparatively long period, pro-ducing small dark red berries continuously or in batches from early summer right through to late autumn or beyond.

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