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13 December 2012

Strawberry Growing

There are few things that give the flavour of summer more than strawberries, and although I am writing this article with a thick frost outside, I can almost taste the fresh fruit.

Strawberries are grown in most countries as they tolerate most soil types, survive weather conditions ranging from cool and moist to hot and dry, and are undemanding of nutrients.

Before preparing your strawberry bed there are a few things to consider:-

1) It should ideally be sheltered from wind and in full sun for most of the day.

2) Your plants will appreciate sufficient water and good drainage.

3) Choose between summer-fruiting and perpetual types. The latter plants don't actually fruit for twelve months of the year, but will provide small, regular supplies of late strawberries from August until frosty weather arrives.

4) As strawberries are readily affected by viruses and soil-borne diseases, you would be wise to buy certified plants from a reputable nursery. There are numerous recommended types including early and late varieties and plants bred to be resistant to various pests and diseases.

Once you have decided on your site you may need to improve your soil. Check the soil pH and aim for a value of about 6.5. A soil manured the previous year gives an ideal start but may still benefit from the addition of garden compost at 1 barrow to 4m2, plus 75g per m2 each of bone meal and seaweed meal. If your soil is particularly short of nutrients apply one barrow of well rotted manure per 12 m2 in addition. However over-enriched soils will tend to grow lush green leaves rather than tasty red fruits. Strawberries thrive in leafmould so if you have some available - Work in a 5cm layer to the top 10cm of soil just prior to planting.

Strawberry plants are supplied as runners either 'cold-stored', available from April to August or 'open ground', available from October to April. The cold-stored plants are preferable as they are likely to be established and fruiting well by the following summer. Plants set out after August will supply a progressively smaller harvest in the first year according to how late you plant them. As your plants will only give you three good years it pays to plant in July or August if possible.

Newly-received runners should be planted as soon as possible, whether in pots, a waiting bed or their final position. Space plants at 35-45cm apart within rows and 75cm between rows, allowing wider spacing on richer soils. Firm the soil gently round the plants with your heel or knuckles, ensuring that you don't leave any exposed roots or bury the crown.

Your beds and plants will need regular attention to keep them at their best:-

1) In spring, as growth begins, clear away any dead leaves and start checking regularly for aphids and other pests in the crown and elsewhere. Remove immediately any plants that remain stunted and fail to grow, as they are showing clear signs of virus.

2) Once fruits begin to form, mulch the crop with straw to keep moisture in the soil and fruit off the soil.

3) From June onwards your plants will begin to produce rapidly extending runners. These can be left and trained in to produce a matted row about 35 to 40cm wide, which will produce more fruit but of generally smaller size. However this may increase the likelihood of disease. Alternatively remove all runners regularly unless you need one or two to fill gaps in the rows.

4) Once the last strawberry has been consumed, clear up the bed by cutting back all foliage (leaving a stump of 10cm or so) and removing it, and any straw, to the compost heap. Ensure that you don't damage the crowns by cutting too deeply into the plant. Keep the soil irrigated if necessary to ensure that there is plenty of fresh new growth on your plants.

A strawberry bed will not last longer than three years before fruits become small and virus and disease stunt the crop, so you may want to consider a system of crop rotation. Ideally strawberries should not be regrown on land vacated by either strawberries or raspberries for at least three years, preferably more. You may alternate them with another crop such as rhubarb or include them in the vegetable garden rotation.

In the intervening years, a top-dressing of leafmould or low nutrient soil improver in early spring should be adequate, while on poor soils garden compost is preferable. If leaves grow strongly and are a deep green colour you have an excess of nitrogen. Continue to remove leaves and mulch after cropping as in the first year.

I hope that you have found this article of interest and that you enjoy succulent home-grown strawberries in the near future.
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