I was once party to a late night student debate about the most perfect fruit. The eventual winner was the strawberry, because of its mouth sized portions, no peel or core to deal with, no need for preparation or condiments and so sweetly delicious I have never met anyone who claims to dislike them.
To this list should also be added their ease of cultivation. Whether you have a large veg garden, a yard or a windowsill, this fruit can go from the ground and into your bowl of cream with a minimum of effort.
The traditional strawberry season was short, centred on Wimbledon fortnight, hence the mad enthusiasm for eating strawberries and cream whilst watching the tennis. Modern breeding, international trade and plant cultivation techniques have allowed us to eat strawberries year round, but if you are growing them yourself, enjoy them while they last. If you have space, plant a few different varieties. Early, mid and late strawberry varieties usually cover the early part of summer, the very latest, such as ‘Florence’ not ripening until mid August. Then there are those sold as repeat, perpetual or ever-bearer types, which tend to be smaller fruited and ripen in a few flushes until the first frosts. The shortest season though is reserved for the grower that doesn’t protect fruits from slugs, snails and blackbirds, so be prepared.
Day neutral strawberries
But there’s a new kid on the block when it comes to strawberries – the day neutral strawberries. These plants aren’t controlled by the daylight and start fruiting in June right through to September. You don’t get a glut all at once, instead they fruit continuously throughout the summer so you can pretty much pick them daily. Ideal for children, families and anyone that wants fresh fruit daily for summer desserts. Perfect for simply adding to cereal or yoghurts or just snacking straight from the plant.
The plants can have spectacular coloured flowers too adding ornamental value to your garden. The new Strawberry ‘Frisan’ has lovely pink flowers and Strawberry ‘Toscana’ has deep pink, almost red flowers.
Plants for free
It is good practice to replant strawberry beds or pots every 4 years to maintain plant health, but the strawberry will supply you with plenty of new material. Your large fruited summer types will all send out runners every which way after they have fruited – think of mini plants, strung out on a long string of root, prospecting for new territory. I root a few of these as replacements (or as an excellent gift for fellow gardeners) by pegging them down to form vertical roots, but the runners take energy away from the main plant so I cut the majority off.
Strawberries are one of the few fruits that thrive in containers. As long as they get at least 6 hours of sun per day, the soil doesn’t get too hot and dry, and there are pollinators around, you will be rewarded with years of fruit.
If you only have space for some pots, I would recommend growing everbearing alpine types, such as ‘Mara des Bois’ or ‘Flamenco’, as they will produce small quantities of fruit from May to October. These are small, but it is as if all the flavour of a large strawberry has been compacted into this petite package. They are great on breakfast cereals, used as garnishes or I have even heard of jam being made from them, but I would get some equally tiny jars to avoid disappointment. They need to be properly red all the way round (unless they are the white ones) before the flavour develops so this is an advantage for the windowsill grower as you can keep a close eye on your harvest.
The other advantage of alpine types for growing in pots is that they don’t produce runners, which keeps the plants compact (this also makes them a good choice for edging paths and beds). After a few year though they will need dividing as the roots can get congested. In the autumn, cut back all the leaves and split the roots into quarters, discarding any dead bits, then repot. You can be inventive with growing spaces too – from purpose made terracotta towers with planting holes up the sides, to re-purposed pallets against a wall, as long as there is a reasonable amount of soil (approx 1 litre per plant) the strawberries will survive and thrive.