Diane Norris shows us how easy it is to plant and grow luscious strawberries in your own backyard.
There is nothing quite as delectable as biting into a big, fresh luscious strawberry. They are extremely versatile culinary-wise and are nutritionally important, packed full of antioxidants and the anti-cancer compound ellagic acid. You can easily grow your own strawberries in a garden bed, a designated strawberry patch, a pot, window box, hanging basket or a specially crafted strawberry urn. And it’s a good idea to grow your strawberries organically as they can retain high levels of residual pesticides, even after you wash them.
Strawberries are herbaceous perennials and are part of the large Rosaceae family. They are low-growing (15—25cm high) spreading plants that have simple, five-petalled white (sometimes pink) flowers which are followed by succulent red edible fruits. Each strawberry plant sends out long thin stems, called stolons or runners, which take root to form a new plant. But they are prone to many diseases so make sure you buy certified virus-free plants from a good nursery. About 10 plants will take up little room yet provide plenty of fruit for a family.
In the garden
Strawberries like rich well-drained soil. To prepare a spot in the garden or vegie patch, dig over the soil thoroughly being careful not to dig too deeply to disturb the sub-soil. Pull out any weeds as young plants will not grow and produce fruit well if they have strong competition. The soil should be slightly acid with a pH of 5.0—6.5. You might need to check the pH of your soil and you can do this with a pH testing kit. These are available at large hardware stores and nurseries and come complete with instructions, testing liquids and advice about altering the pH of soil. Add plenty of compost (home-made is best), animal manure or blood and bone, to the soil and mix in well with a garden fork. Good drainage is essential. Don’t plant into a flat surface but create raised mounds, about 200mm (8 inches) higher than the adjacent soil. Strawberries are shallow rooted but hate wet feet even though they need plenty of water. Plant your plants about 30cm apart in full sun. When doing this, only bury the roots and make sure the swollen stem base is left above the surface. Spreading mulch around each plant stops the ripening fruit coming into contact with the soil. The best mulch is straw, lucerne, organic sugarcane or their apparent favourite, pine needles. Don’t spread too thickly and keep well away from the centre crown of the plant. Water well.
Growing strawberries in pots is ideal as they get perfect drainage and air circulation. Fill the container with good organic soil/compost mix to about 5 cm (2 inches) from the top. Depending on the size of the container you can gauge how many plants will fit but do not overcrowd. Apply a little sugarcane mulch, or pine needles, and water-in well. Place your pot or container in a spot that will get at least six hours of direct sun per day.
Strawberry plants are always hungry and thirsty. Water well, especially during summer, and feed with a liquid seaweed fertiliser or animal manure regularly. Keep the mulch topped up. You may need to cover your crop with bird netting to keep out birds and possums. To stop slugs and snails, purchase a beer-trap or squash them when you see them. If you notice a whitish-grey powder on the leaves it will be powdery mildew. To treat organically, mix one part of whole-milk to nine parts water and spray on the leaves. After fruiting, remove any spent foliage and runners, apply compost, organic fertiliser and mulch in readiness for the next season.
To get the real benefit of these succulent fruits, pick your strawberries at the right time — when they are three-quarters to full red. Keep an eye out as they ripen very quickly and can go off fast if left unpicked. To avoid damaging the fruit use small scissors to cut them off the plant, leaving a small bit of stalk attached.
It’s best to start with new disease-free plants but you can prune off the runners after fruiting has finished. This will tidy up the plants too. You can plant any sprouting runners and they will grow into new plants. Strawberries are perennials so it is best to dig up and replace with new plants after a few years or when they become unproductive.