Strawberries - the perfect summer crop

Summer isn’t complete without a bowl of strawberries and the very best are those just-picked from the garden, still warm from the sun and bursting with flavour.

They are among the easiest of fruits to grow, taking care of themselves and suitable for growing in the smallest of spaces. Containers, strawberry pots and even hanging baskets are all ideal if ground space is limited.

When it comes to varieties, they divide into three main types: summer fruiting, ‘perpetual’ with a longer harvesting season and tiny alpine strawberries.

Summer and perpetual varieties produce the familiar big berries and prefer a good sunny spot, although they will cope with semi-shade. Plant early, mid and late-season varieties to get the longest picking season, or choose a perpetual, which should produce fruit from July to into autumn.

For cooler, shadier conditions, alpine strawberries are the answer. The fruits are tiny, with an intense, often perfumed, flavour. They are perfect for edging a vegetable bed or alongside a path in an ornamental potager.

Strawberries like soil that has been enriched with good compost or other organic matter and that’s slightly on the acidic side. Prepare the site well and make sure it’s been weeded.

Plant in late summer or mid-spring – alpine strawberries can be raised from seed but plants are easier and not expensive. Put plants 30cm apart with a 1m gap between rows and ensure the crown is at soil level. If you plant in spring, remove the first season’s flowers to allow the crowns to establish.

Strawberries will need to be kept well-watered and weed-free. Put straw or fabric around the plants to stop fruit getting splashed with mud. Some form of netting, or a fruit cage is essential to stop birds eating the fruit.

Plants growing in containers should have a regular feed and check for vine weevil.

Keep cutting off runners – long shoots with small plants on them – to ensure energy goes into fruit production. When the picking finishes, cut back the old leaves on summer varieties to around 10cm to allow new foliage to come through. Perpetual varieties should have the old foliage removed in autumn.

Strawberry beds should be replaced after three years to stop the build-up of disease and to keep the plants vigorous. The easiest way is to root runners in small compost-filled pots and then transplant them to a different area. Perpetual strawberries are best replaced annually by buying new plants.

And if you want to start summer early, try bringing a few plants under cover from February. Just remember to feed and water them and hand pollinate with a soft paintbrush. You could be eating strawberries by the end of April.

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