Growing strawberries

Garden Life
Tips from Sarah the Gardener

There is nothing nicer than going into the garden and reaching down and plucking a sun warmed, bright red strawberry, popping it into your mouth and allowing your taste buds to tingle with the sweet fragrant juices. Growing strawberries is like growing candy.

Strawberries have been around forever, although not as the sweet juicy fruit they are today. They grow wild on almost all temperate continents except Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, and historically, were gathered as forage food. People didn’t grow these early strawberries as a crop as they were abundantly available although much smaller. They have been woven into the fabric of time with a mention by Roman poets as ornaments, and in Roman medicinal records to treat fevers, sore throats, and even bad breath, among other things. In medieval times they were carved into stone as symbols of perfection and righteousness in churches and cathedrals and were served at important events to bring peace and prosperity. Meanwhile on the other side of the world, they were enjoyed by other cultures including the Native Americans who added them to cornbread in an early form of strawberry shortcake.

It wasn’t until the French began growing Wood Strawberries Fragaria vesca in their gardens in the 14th century did they make the leap from wild plants to domestic crops. Charles the V, King of France, is reported to have had 1,200 plants in his royal garden. From then, growing strawberries became more common and Thomas Wolsey from the court of King Henry the VIII is said to have created the delicious combination of strawberries and cream. By the end of the 16th Century, there were three commonly grown strawberry varieties F. vesca, F. moschata, and F. viridis in Europe.

Then the worlds collided. The explorers to the new world brought back to Europe new strawberry types - F. virginiana from America and F. chiloensis from Chile. When these new varieties were selectively bred together with the European varieties, new larger fruit of a better quality were the result. This also resulted in exciting discoveries in the science of plant breeding. Even today strawberries are one of the few foods with a fully mapped genome. It was a group effort with 75 researchers from 38 research institutes.

It was certainly worth the effort to bring us the delightfully delicious strawberry as one of the first fruits of the season. They not only taste good but are good for you. They are low in calories, but are rich in antioxidants, Vitamin C and other essential nutrients that will keep you healthy. As if the sweet taste isn’t enough reason to eat them.
Strawberries are bright red, juicy and have a sweet flavour and aroma when perfectly ripe. It is worth waiting for the optimal moment before harvesting them as they don’t continue to ripen once picked. Pick them with a good length of stem attached to the berry as this will help keep them fresher longer. If you can’t eat them straight away, they are best stored in the fridge in a shallow dish lined with a paper towel. Although fresh is best as they begin to lose their nutrient value after 2 days. They also taste much better at room temperature than chilled.

Don’t wash them until you are ready to eat them as this can speed up the spoilage process. Cutting before washing can leak water into the fruit and ruin the flavour. For long term storage they can be frozen or turned into jam, which is particularly useful if you have overripe berries. There are plenty of baking and cooking recipes to ensure none of your strawberries go to waste and there is something for everyone.

Although strawberries have the word ‘berry’ in their name, they aren’t actually berries as the technical description of a berry is to have the seeds on the inside, like a blueberry. Strawberries are an aggregate accessory fruit. On average, there are 200 seeds per fruit, but these aren’t actually the seeds, those are inside the hard little shells that adorn the outside of the strawberry. The part we eat as the fruit is actually a thickened part of the stem.

The plant is just as interesting as the ‘berry’. It is a perennial, which means it comes back year after year, however the quality of the fruit peaks at three years and productivity wanes by five years. The plant is made up of the three main elements, the shallow root system, the shortened stem called the crown where most of the plant growth originates, and the leaves. Strawberries leaves are quite easy to identify thanks to the three leaflets with toothed edges.

strawberry flower
The strawberry flower averages five to seven petals and they are just as lovely as the rose family to which they are related. The plant can reproduce via the seeds, however it is more commonly and prolifically reproduced via its runners which are stolon – a horizontal stem that emerges from the crown and nurtures the young daughter plant until she establishes herself as an independent plant.

Strawberry plants are classified by the terms Day Neutral or Short Day. This determines when they will flower. Day neutral (Ever Bearing) will flower and fruit at any time if the temperatures suit them and often produce throughout the summer. Short Day (June Bearing) varieties prefer the length of day found in spring and autumn.

Interestingly, the shape, as well as the flavour and quality of the fruit, is determined by the climate they are grown in.

Strawberries are easy to grow at home and will grow well in most well drained garden soils. They need at least 8 – 10 hours of sun. They are hungry plants so add plenty of well-rotted organic material and feed regularly during the growing season. The best time to plant strawberry plants is during the winter months and they should be planted 40 cm apart for the best harvest. Mulch well to keep the moisture in, the weeds down and the berries clean. Strawberries also grow well in containers and the fruit can cascade down the side, although pay attention to feeding and watering for healthy plants. Make sure to protect your plants from slugs, snails and birds.

Thirty to forty plants are a good number for a family of four if you want enough for snacking, making jams and freezing so you can enjoy their goodness all year long. Harvest every couple of days when in fruit.

In ancient Greece, the strawberry was the symbol for the goddess Venus to represent love and with such a delicious berry, what’s not to love.