Strawberry short-cuts: Alan Titchmarsh on growing a succulent crop
From planting to choosing, strawberries are the fastest fruit possible grow. In the event you started a brand new bed last autumn, it can crop well this summer, but it’s not too late to install pot-grown plants this spring, once they seem on sale. To increase the picking season to its maximum, grow one row each of early, mid-season and late- cropping varieties. The identical strawberry plants will fruit for four seasons before they want replacing.
Strawberries need rich, fertile, well-drained soil in a sunny situation. Prepare the soil well; fork in well-rotted organic matter and a handful of general-purpose fertiliser, akin to blood, fish and bonemeal, per square yard/metre. Plant in rows, spacing plants 18 inches apart, with a path two to a few feet wide between rows to permit easy accessibility for cultivation and picking.
March marks the beginning of the growing season, so now’s the time to weed strawberry beds carefully and repeat regularly (weeds encourage pests and disease, in addition competing for moisture and nutrients). Avoid dislodging the plants, as they’re shallow-rooted.
In late March or early April, sprinkle one ounce of sulphate of potash along each yard/metre of the row, applying it carefully to 1 side of the plants (should any get directly to the leaves, wash it off to bypass scorching). If it doesn’t rain soon afterwards, water or hoe this in, and if there’s a dry spell when the plants come into flower in late spring/early summer, water well so that they don’t suffer a sign in growth, if you want to reduce your crop.
As soon because the flowers finish, the primary tiny green strawberry fruitlets start “setting”. Weed thoroughly, then sprinkle organic slug pellets or manage slug traps between the plants. Next, spread a skinny layer of straw (teased out from a bale and shaken loose) all around the plants and over the trails between rows. Alternatively, lay strawberry mats carefully around each plant. The purpose of it is to boost the fruit off damp ground and to prevent soil splashing directly to the ripening fruit – which inspires rotting – so lift up foliage and developing fruitlets, and tuck the straw or mats carefully underneath.
Continue removing any weeds that have the capacity to appear through this mulch. Lay any early-developing runners along the rows so that they don’t obscure the trails in the course of the crop.
Avoid watering after flowering if possible, since damp conditions will encourage grey mould and rotten fruit. If a dry spell makes watering essential, do it the first thing within the morning in order that foliage and developing fruit dry off quickly.
As soon as fruits start swelling, cover the beds with netting, raised up on wire hoops and well pegged down around the sides, to offer protection to the crop from birds – don’t wait until berries start ripening.
Do this primary thing within the morning, when fruit is at its juiciest, and pick only ripe red fruit since orange berries won’t have developed their full flavour. Pick the strawberries carefully, complete with their stalks and green calyxes – don’t tug them off the plant – and handle them with care in order that they don’t bruise. That you can pick everyday or two.
When many of the crop has gone and only small and/or misshapen fruits are left, remove the netting and let birds have anything else. Alternatively, you can also make jam or smoothies with these.
Use shears or large scissors to chop all of the fruited plants all the way down to about three inches above the bottom, removing each of the old leaves and runners. This sounds extreme, however improves the health of the bed by removing potential sources of disease, and in addition exposes pests for birds to address. Sprinkle a handful of general fertiliser and one ounce of sulphate of potash to every yard of row, applying it carefully between the plants and washing it in afterwards.
If you want spare plants to exchange old ones or to increase your strawberry bed, propagate your personal. Just leave about a “parent plants” unclipped on the end of the rows and peg the largest, healthiest runners down into pots, able to replant once they are big enough. You’ll have spare plants free of charge.
Plant of the week
If you spot a poinsettia-like shrub flowering outdoors around now, it’ll be a pieris. From a distance, the foremost noticeable feature of this neat, dome-shaped evergreen is its bold clusters of bright-red young leaves, but a more in-depth look reveals short sprays of white urn-shaped flowers splaying out over deep green foliage. The show continues until May, when the flowers are over and the hot leaves revert to green. But pieris isn’t something everyone can grow; it needs acid soil, so in case you can’t grow rhododendrons on your garden, pieris won’t do well either. The choice is to grow it in a bath of ericaceous compost.
As an advantage, being confined keeps the plant naturally compact; within the garden it might grow to six-8ft. Grow it in light shade or dappled shade under trees. The earliest pieris to flower are types of pieris “japonica”, and instead to white flowers, there also are pink varieties, reminiscent of “Blush” or the red-flowered “Valley Valentine”. But perhaps most spectacular are the varieties with variegated leaves, corresponding to “Flaming Silver”, because the foliage makes a show all year round.