Finally! It’s only taken me 3 and a bit years, but I’ve finally figured out how to grow strawberries. All it took was actually paying attention when I was last at a local pick-your-own farm..
Anyway, the object of the exercise would seem to be to get your strawberry plants as big and full of energy as possible over the whole year so they stand the best chance of producing a large crop when the summer arrives. How you get them that way depends hugely upon where you’re growing them and how much space you want to put aside.
I started off with 4 for £3 of strawberry plants from the local nursery about 4 years ago now, I forget which varieties, and grown them in what I thought at the time were big enough containers. Sure enough, I had maybe 3 or 4 average sized very tasty fruits per plant and that was good for a 5m x 6m back yard.
Propagating strawberries is about as easy as it comes as the plants are nice enough to throw out vines and actually grow baby plants along the vines. To make a new plant, simply get a small pot filled right to the very top of compost (if you leave the usual gap along the top for watering, you have to bend the vine more than it likes), put it under the baby plant that’s still attached to the mother plant, and pin the plant into the compost with a paperclip. Yep, bent paperclip technology ™ strikes again! I would suggest that you only pot up the first two plants along each vine and pinch out the rest.
Actually, if somebody wanted a fun introduction to gardening (and liked summer fruit) then I can’t think of anything better than strawberries. Easy to grow, very visible stages and the end result is something worthwhile.
Back to the story. About 18 months ago, I had a very steady afternoon potting up what was getting on for 30 or 40 baby strawberry plants (if I’d bothered to keep track of varieties, I could have made some real money selling that lot!), which made for good housewarming presents to friends if nothing else. The next spring (that would be about April 2006, just over a year ago) I dug up a proper bed for them in the garden and nearly went to town on it, double digging the ground as it was really compacted, working in lots of organic matter from my grass cuttings and some ready rotted manure and soil mix (it didn’t smell – yay for prepackaged and blended muck!).
The bed was of standard size, about 2.4m x 1.2m, and I made a series of 10cm ridges across it, spaced about 10cm apart, into which I planted the by now sensibly sized strawberry plants. The next trick was then to absolutely stuff the remaining bed full of straw as a mulch and to try to keep the plants out of contact with the soil such that the fruits would grow to the sides into the straw-filled troughs next to the plants. It was a quite the learning exercise for me finding out just how thick the layer of straw needed to be. The ground was very rich and fertile and still very light (if you stood on it, you’d sink), then I just left it to it. The birds and slugs got the first years’ crop long before I did, but the plants were just getting into the swing of things.
The next 12 months of getting their roots into an unconfined space made for a really impressive show of growth, the plants were huge compared to their container grown parents. I didn’t touch the ground for most of that time, apart from the occasional weeding (thistles and nettles do not a pleasant picking experience make) and it just got on with it. I happened to check on the bed earlier today and from about 12-15 plants got something like 3 punnets full of the biggest strawberries ever!
Yes, some had been eaten through by the slugs and some had holes pecked in by the birds, but it would appear that the secret to getting to eat some of your own crops would be strength in numbers. My previous experiments with nets and scares were less than succesful, the only thing I managed with the nets was to catch a little baby bird 🙁 (it was rescued and survived just fine before you hit send on the hate mail).
This wall of text could have done with some photographs, but I’ve managed to lose the “in progress” photos I took last year and my digital camera isn’t keen on being used in the rain, so you’ll have to make do with my ramblings.
One thing is clear though, jam season is upon us! Stay tuned for the first batch of this year’s preserves, probably involving strawberries, raspberries and pineapples.