Today I was somewhat sternly telling my munchkin not to pick the strawberries because they weren’t ready yet. Some time later I noticed munchkin intently ignoring me and bent over in the patch. I investigated further and found a good handful of strawberries like this one:
I was surprised when the fruit tasted good too. Even the under-ripe fruit we picked were promising. My expectations have been so low this spring after the bug-bitten and oddly bitter tasting fruit of last year’s harvest left me exasperated and defeated. We only got a couple of handfuls of edible fruit from the whole season.
This patch I planted from bare root crowns in the winter of 2014 in a newly prepared no-dig bed. The plants all did really well but I hardly got any of the fruit because every bug under the sun came from all around to eat them. Harlequin bugs, ants, slaters, earwigs, and other LBJs (little brown jobs) all joined in on the feast. The ones we did get to before the bugs tasted strange. Not sweet, and sort of, bitter. Quite strange.
So I’ve been having an extended “is this really worth growing at home?” moment when thinking about the strawberries over the past few months. This good start to the season has renewed my enthusiasm.
Strawberries in the Edible Garden
Here’s a reminder of why strawberries are great for the home food gardener:
Timing: it’s the first day of the last month of spring. And I feel increasingly grateful for any food that comes out of the garden in spring. Granted ours is a new garden but we are in the hungry gap. Not only that, but with strawberries (perhaps other berries too?) you can get a long harvest with the right varieties.
Flavour: the flavour of a homegrown strawberry, picked when perfectly ripe, and a little bit warm from the sun – well, would be hyperbole to say it’s life-changing?
Yield: I’m not sure what to say about yield as I haven’t yet achieved a really good yield. They don’t, however, take up a lot of space. I have about 30 plants in 1m x 2m bed, with space to spare. If I got all the fruit before the bugs did, that would be a very good yield. And as our garden is new, and we have years to wait until our fruit trees fruit, berries are one of the only fruity fruit (as opposed to those vegetable-y fruit, and a few annuals like melons) that we can get out of our garden through the whole season – so they’re very useful yield in a new garden.
Skill Required: strawberries are easy to grow. They are a little more difficult to grow really well, in my view, at least avoiding sprays. You need to put in some effort to defeat the bugs. As I discovered last year. But as I say, my enthusiasm and optimism is renewed.
The first year I grew strawberries, in pots, they were so sweet and deeply strawberry flavoured, it was almost shocking. The varieties I have are all from the Diggers Club (Alinta, Cambridge Rival, Chandler, and Kamu) and have all been selected for their flavour. I say to you, if you stick with the regular varieties available through most nurseries, forget it. You haven’t tasted a strawberry until you’ve tasted a fully ripe Cambridge Rival. If you’re someone who thinks Red Gauntlet tastes good, I suggest you try any of the varieties I listed above.
Soil Preparation, Spacing and Feeding
I do suspect that last year I had too much fertiliser (in the form of blood and bone, laid down between the layers of the no-dig bed) in the soil – the foliage really took off and had that very lush, waxy, sappy feel about it, which I gather is a sign of excess nitrogen? This year I haven’t added anything except a thin top coat of aged cow poo. They’re still growing strongly but don’t have that sappy growth.
Something else I did differently last year was not give the strawberries any potash feeds. I did this regularly in my first year growing them in pots when the fruit tasted so rich. Potash if you don’t know, is potassium, which promotes, among other things, flowering, fruit formation and strong yields. I believe it also affects flavour. So this year I’ll try and resume that habit.
I think I also had the plants too closely spaced – they were really squashed in and struggling up towards the light I think. So this year in spring I moved four or five plants out into other beds (which didn’t set them back one bit – they are all also fruiting in their new locations). I did aim for 30cm spacings each way, but they seemed to be closer than that in the end. Now that I’ve moved some they have about that much space or more.
A word on companion planting. I would recommend against planting borage in the same bed as your strawberries – at least within a metre of the nearest strawberry. Borage is reminiscent of the Day of the Triffids, albeit a slightly more benign plant. It’s really crowding out the berries below it and I think stealing sun, water and nutrients. I’m going to cut this one back really hard soon.
On the topic of companions, I will be interested to see whether the plants I moved to other spots, with other herbs and fruit trees and vegies, will be less prone to bird and bug attack. I assume the birds will find them but I am keen to compare my monoculture bed with these other plants.
Protecting Strawberries from Bugs
Having observed the way bugs love the protection provided by pea straw in my no-dig beds, this year I decided to lay off mulching for a while to see if that resulted in fewer bugs. I think it has. And when I do mulch them, I’ll be using either wheaten straw, or even better, pine needles. Something that seems less hospitable for bugs anyway. In the meantime, the canopy of the leaves seems to be covering most of the patch and the strawberries aren’t rotting. Admittedly, it has barely rained once in the past two months, so this may not work in all situations.
Last year I also laid down beer traps – beer bottles laid on their sides with a small amount of beer left in them. We caught loads of bugs this way and there were definitely fewer around after I got serious about that. Unfortunately they still tasted weird.
Protecting Berries from Birds
I’ve never lost berries to the birds because I use bird-friendly netting. The weave is so fine you can’t poke a finger through it, so not even small birds get stuck in it. I have no trouble with flower pollination – I think this is because strawberries are bee and wind pollinated, so it doesn’t matter too much if the bees can’t access them. Well, not the strawberries anyway, I can’t speak for the bees.
I have a high tech way of stringing up the net over the patch:
So, after this auspicious start, I am allowing myself to hope for a harvest of strawberries this season that serves as more than a morning garden snack for me and my munchkin. A harvest we can take indoors and use in the kitchen. It was really disappointing to not get a useable harvest last year after all the trouble I went to, setting up the bed and the money I spent on the plants.
Let me know reader, how you protect your strawberries and what else you do to get a worthwhile harvest from them at home in your edible garden.