How to grow your own strawberries

Author: Mat Pember

A real ace of the garden, strawberries may require attention but bring real joy - they are also prime candidates for small spaces, says Mat Pember.

To say that a strawberry is a fruit is to call Jimi Hendrix a guitar player. Sure, it's true, but it also misses the point entirely. The strawberry is the ace of the garden, an object of desire. But it's not just Daiquiri-makers that covet its sweet flesh - rats, slugs, birds and bats are similarly enamoured. Like looking at a campfire, the sight of a strawberry stirs some primal longing within us.

Although we're all used to seeing the standard plump red strawberry in the supermarket, few people realise there are many more weird and wonderful varieties you can grow. As is often the case, what we see on the shelves has been selected for commercially friendly characteristics such as size, yield and disease resistance, often at the expense of taste. But there are red, blue, black, green and even purple strawberries to consider. Take the pineberry, a white strawberry with red seeds and a pineapple-like taste - hands up if you'd like to grow this? Thought so.

Once you've settled on a preferred variety, the best option is to start with a seedling or a runner, if you have access to existing plants. Find a site with well-draining soil that gets full sun and add plenty of organic compost to the patch to help the plant get its initial boost of nitrogen.

We typically plant strawberries during the hottest parts of the year, which means they require daily watering for at least the first month or two, or until the plants become established and the weather cools off. Strawberries like water, but don't want to sit in a sloppy bog. Adding surface mulch helps to regulate moisture levels, as does well-draining soil. While hand-watering in the morning is a good option, other great ways to get around this watering malarkey are with a drip irrigation system or by planting into a wicking bed. This allows the plants to draw the amount of water they require without daily human intervention.

Since strawberries are great small-space plants, they're a prime candidate for growing in pots or a vertical garden. The key is to choose the best potting mix. Get the good stuff, the kind of premium soil that exudes an air of fecundity.

While the most common varieties will flower and fruit once per year, there are everbearing varieties that produce two or even three times. Once the first flowers appear, it typically takes about four or five weeks for fruit to form and, once formed, berries will ripen within about 10 days. Successful harvesting is all about timing.

It's important to allow the fruit to ripen and sweeten up. To ensure maximum freshness, pick strawberries during the cooler part of the morning or on cloudy days. Picking on hot and sunny days will dramatically decrease their shelf-life and result in the fruit softening and spoiling more rapidly.

Unfortunately, you may not have the time to carefully consider your perfect harvest, given that the rats, slugs, and next-door neighbours' kids are all biding their time, too. The key is not to be too greedy and to deploy defensive gardening measures. Crop cages and slug traps will keep some of the less-cunning wildlife out of the patch. However, humans will pose the biggest challenge - it's best not to reveal your crop to children under the age of 10 while fruiting is in progress.

Under ideal conditions, a strawberry plant can live for five or six years, but after three productive years, it begins to lose its vigour and the yield declines rapidly. As the plant ages and weakens, it may succumb to opportunistic fungi, ending up brown and withered - such an unceremonious end to this ace of the garden.

Tip of the month: strawberry runners
A certain amount of guilt always comes with starting a plant from seedling. It's a bit like eating dessert first - it's delicious but socially unacceptable. Seeds, on the other hand, come with a free spoonful of respect. Fortunately, with strawberries at least, you don't have to choose - they produce their very own seedlings right on the vine.

See how they grow
As your strawberry plant grows, it begins to send out wiry "runners" - stems with small clumps of foliage. These are essentially ready-to-plant seedlings that sprawl outwards from an established plant. When left to their own devices, runners will eventually settle on the ground and take root to colonise and develop into new strawberry plants. Such is nature's way.

Take control
You can expedite this process by clipping the seedling free of its vine. Once cut, these small strawberry seedlings can be planted directly into the patch and given a good watering. With any luck, they should be throwing off runners of their own in no time at all.





What to plant
Cool/mountainous
Beetroot seed
Bok Choi/Pak Choi seedling
Capsicum seedling
Carrot seed
Chilli seedling
Eggplant seedling
Herbs (all) seedling
Lettuce seedling
Rocket seedling
Radish seed
Silverbeet seedling
Spinach seedling
Spring onion seedling
Strawberry seedling

Temperate
Beans seedling
Beetroot seed
Bok Choi/Pak Choi seedling
Capsicum seedling
Carrot seed
Chilli seedling
Eggplant seedling
Herbs (all except coriander) seedling
Lettuce seedling
Rocket seedling
Radish seed
Silverbeet seedling
Spring onion seedling
Strawberry seedling

Sub tropical
Beans seedling
Beetroot seed
Bok Choi/Pak Choi seedling
Capsicum seedling
Chilli seedling
Cucumber seedling
Eggplant seedling
Herbs (all except coriander and dill) seedling
Lettuce seedling
Pumpkin seed
Rocket seedling
Radish seed
Silverbeet seedling
Spring onion seedling
Squash seedling
Strawberry seedling
Sweet corn seedling
Zucchini seedling

Tropical
Beans seedling
Beetroot seed
Bok Choi/Pak Choi seedling
Capsicum seedling
Chilli seedling
Cucumber seedling
Eggplant seedling
Herbs (all except coriander and dill) seedling
Lettuce seedling
Radish seed
Rocket seedling
Silverbeet seedling
Spring onion seedling
Squash seedling
Strawberry seedling
Sweet corn seedling
Zucchini seedling



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