Growing Strawberries

Who could resist a luscious home grown strawberry. They are easy to grow organically and pesticide free, making your home grown strawberries even healthier for your family.

Best of all, strawberries can be successfully grown in both large or small gardens, in pots, in hanging baskets, on sunny balconies, in foam vegetable packing boxes and even in modified guttering systems.

In temperate  Sydney strawberry runners can be planted in April, May and June. Prepare your site ready for planting. A little effort and time will reap results as the plants grow.

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The “seeds” seen on the outside of the strawberry are actually the plant’s ovaries and each “seed” is a separate fruit that has a seed inside it.

Growth habits and planting needs

There are many varieties of strawberries available so do some research on what is available in your area. In Australia, Diggers club has many different varieties that they can send out in Australia. Go to  the link here.

Select a site that gets sun for 6-8 hours as this will protect the plants from fungal disease.

Planting in the garden:

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Strawberries growing in a raised garden bed

Ideally, soil preparation should start at least 4-6 weeks before planting. Strawberries prefer soil that is well drained, rich in organic matter, which is slightly acidic with a pH of  6.0 – 6.5, with pH 6.2 as optimal, so test the soil and amend if necessary.

In the crop rotation system, strawberries as fruiting plants, should follow leafy plants but not be planted where members of the nightshade family; tomatoes, peppers, potatoes or eggplant have grown previously (this will prevent verticillium rot). They should also not be planted near members of the Brassica family as these plants will have their growth impaired by the nutrient demand of the strawberry plants as they spread. Brassicas include: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage,  cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, and Romanesco broccoli.

To ensure good drainage, build up the soil or grow strawberries in raised beds. Dig in well rotted compost to a depth of 30cm and also add some aged cow manure well ahead of planting so that the nutrients will be available to the strawberries when planted. They will also need a good space between plants of about 30 cm to allow for air circulation and for plants to expand as they grow so make sure the space you allocate is suitable.

This is a good time to set up a drip irrigation system that will keep the plants well hydrated as strawberries need adequate water from early growth through flowering and fruiting.

Once prepared, mulch over the bed to keep weeds at bay and to stop the soil from crusting over.

Plant strawberry runners that have been bought from a reputable nursery that are disease free in autumn through to spring in temperate zones or in late spring in cooler areas.

Strawberry and runner
A strawberry plant and a runner coming from it.

Two days before planting clear a some of the mulch where the strawberry plants will be positioned, spacing at 30cm apart and water over some diluted liquid seaweed.

If possible plant on a cool and cloudy day. To plant out potted strawberries dig a V shaped hole about 10 inches deep and large enough to accommodate the entire root system comfortably. Lay the plant on one of the sides with roots spread down and ensuring that the crown  (where the leaves emerge) is just above the soil level to prevent it rotting. Backfill the hole with the soil removed and firm down well.

If you are planting bare rooted strawberry plants, dig a hole large enough to contain the roots making a mound in the centre. Then fan out the roots over this mound with the ends of the roots downwards. Fill the hole well and firm down to remove any air gaps.

Then water in with diluted liquid seaweed to settle the soil.

Place the mulch around each plant keeping it well clear of the crown and then water in with diluted liquid seaweed. This will prevent evaporation from the shallow rooting system of the strawberry plants.

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Planting depth that allows the roots to be covered while the crown is above the soil.

Keep the bed evenly moist but not waterlogged . This is particularly important in the first two weeks of planting while as plants are establishing roots. This is the time that the plants are at their most vulnerable.

Strawberries need at least 25mm or 1 inch of water each week after establishment and more during extended hot periods. This is about 80L of water per plant over the growing season. Plants that are water stressed will have reduced flowering, fruit set and size and experiments have shown that yield over the period can be reduced by as much as 33%. This shows the importance of watering well especially during the hot summer months.

Avoid watering in the early morning or late evening and never wet the leaves but rather water below the plant. The drip irrigation system is perfect for delivering just the right amount of water below the mulch and so avoid evaporation and keep weeds down as well.

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Strawberries growing in a well mulched bed.

Managing the young strawberry plants

There are two ways of approaching management of the young strawberry plants depending on your own needs.

You can take the first seasons fruit by removing the runners as they form. The harvest will be necessarily smaller because the plant is still growing and does not have enough vigour to carry a large crop.

If however, you want to get the best out of your plants, another way is to plan for a 3 year succession that will maximise the cropping potential of the strawberry plants.

In the first season, remove the first seasons flowers and any runners as they develop. Cut them back close to the plant using sharp scissors. This will give the strawberry plants more time to establish a healthy, vigorous root system and will give a larger crop in the second season.

In the second season allow the flowers to develop but remove the runners that emerge cutting them back close to the plant. Runners drain nutrients and energy from the mother plant and lead to smaller cropping.

In the third season the runners can be allowed to develop and be rooted into the space between the plants. Choose the plants that are the most vigorous when establishing the new runners and only allow 4-5 of the healthiest runners and cut off the rest. The image above shows the small roots coming from the new plant. Push the roots into the soil, keeping the young crown above the surface and water well. In about 6 weeks the new plant will be well developed and you can cut the stolon between the plants and the replacement strawberry plants will be ready to transplant along with a good ball of soil around the roots into a newly established bed to start the cycle over.

When the original plants lose their vigour, they can be removed and the new plants will continue to provide crops of strawberries.

To prevent the build up of disease it is wise to start a new bed using the healthiest runners to start again.

Fertilise your strawberry plants with diluted seaweed solution as recommended, when the plants flower.

When the strawberry plants are finished fruiting cut back the plants to the top of the crown and the immediats small leaves. Spread some aged compost around the plants and water in with Seasol and cover with some straw or sugar cane mulch keeping it clear of the crown of the plant.

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A young strawberry plant with flowers and developing fruit at various stages.

An easy way to protect the strawberries from birds as they ripen is to make a tunnel of 2mm steel mesh, as shown in the image below, supported by wooden pegs and staggering the sections to allow access to the ripening fruit. This forms a firm structure that can then be covered with bird mesh or shade cloth if temperatures are extreme, as often  happens in Sydney in summer. The raised bed that is being covered here is 1200cm in width and 2m long.

Snails and slugs and in Sydney, skinks love the strawberries too. Use coffee grounds scattered around the plants or beer in snail baits to attract the snails and slugs. Removing dead leaves and wood where they may shelter.

However, there are other approaches. Ground breaking reasearch by Queen Mary University of London and The University of Exeter has shown “how gardeners can limit the damage the snails impose by nullifying their homing instinct” by removing them out of the garden at a distance of over 20 m. Read the information and more details and links on the study  here at this link and the study here.

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A raised bed covered in sections of steel wire mesh to support bird netting and shade cloth when needed.

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Growing strawberries in containers:

As strawberries are shallow rooted they grow well in containers. Consider the location of your pots to make sure that it is not windy and would  lead to plants quickly drying out.

Use a good potting mix that is rich in organic matter. Remember that the pH should be 6.2 for best results. Keep moist and shade in extreme weather to stop evaporation of moisture from the pots.

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Hanging baskets dry out quickly so keep an eye on the moisture in the pots.

The images below show stackable trio pots that are perfect for growing strawberries on balconies. They have a good depth of soil and drainage to the level below under each section.

As pots can dry out with wind and sun and the more limited soil you can set up an automatic drip system to ensure that the growing strawberries are kept moist but not too wet. Use a little straw around the  plants as they grow.

growing strawberries in this was keeps them free from snails and slugs and they can be netted close to maturity to keep birds away.

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Strawberries can grow and fruit successfully in pots if they are adequately watered.
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Stackable pots make excellent strawberry growing pots that keep slugs and snails at bay.

As the plants develop cut off the runners that they send out to maximize the crop. After fruiting has finished, trim back the leaves leving the central crown and its smaller leaves and add a layer of compost and new straw around each plant ensuring that this does not cover the crown.

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A strawberry ready for harvesting.

Below is another system to grow your strawberries you do not have a lot of space. The plants are grown in lengths of guttering that has been attached to a wooden frame and the guttering is slanted slightly from one side to the other. In this way the water can move down the entire frame. If you have a pump you can make the water recycle and keep the plants well watered. If you are going to use this system make sure that the wall gets enough sunshine falling on it during the day. so that the strawberry plants will flower.

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Harvesting

There is nothing more satisfying than going to the strawberry patch and harvesting your very own strawberries. The flavour is amazing and so much better than the store bought product.

The fruit will be ready to harvest 4-6 weeks after flowering.

Harvest the ripe berries every 3 days to encourage new flowering.

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The fruit will be ready to harvest 4-6 weeks after flowering.

Harvest the ripe berries every 3 days to encourage new flowering and  try to pick in the early morning, especially if the weather will be hot and store them in the fridge. The strawberries should be fully ripe as they do not ripen after picking. Trim them from the plant leaving a little of the stem on each.

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A perfectly ripe, red strawberry freshly picked.
Do not wash the strawberries before putting them in the fridge and once ready to use do not remove the green caps or hull before washing them as they will become water sodden.
Put them into shallow trays and remove any  soft or damaged berries before storing them.
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The strawberries in the centre that show a little white flesh are not quite ready for harvest.

This is how the best berries should look, fully red and matured.

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A bountiful harvest of fully ripe strawberries, luscious and red and ready to eat.

Strawberries can also be frozen by washing and hulling the strawberries and drying them with paper towel. Then use them whole or halved and then lay them on a tray in the freezer for 2 hours and then placing them in zip lock plastic bags removing the air from the bag. The strawberries will keep for 6 months and can be used in smoothies, thawed and pureed or used for making jam.

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These strawberries have been chopped in half and frozen for four months and still taste wonderful when thawed.

Strawberries are wonderful and can be used in so many ways: eaten fresh, as flavouring for smoothies or ice cream, for making delicious jam or tempting us as decorations on cakes and on dessert tables.

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and who could resist this strawberry ice cream sundae!

Strawberry ice cream sunday

Stawberry jam made from home grown strawberries is a great way to preserve the fruit to have all year. Below is a link to how to make your own jam from your organically, pesticide free ripe berries. Below is also a link to the recipe for scones and pikelets to smother your jam on and serve with a dollop of double cream.

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Recipes:

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Homemade Strawberry Jam

 

 

Strawberry and banana ice cream

 

4 Ingredient Strawberry, Banana Ice Cream

 

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Ann’s Lemon Pikelets

 

 

IMG_20151122_192529-heart shaped scones

Heart Shaped Scones

 

 

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