Wednesday 23 October 2019

Diarmuid Gavin: How to grow your own strawberries

This versatile juicy fruit can be grown on raised beds


Diarmuid Gavin

In a sometimes turbulent world of Trump visits, Brexit worries and rising anxieties, our gardens become a retreat from political upheaval, national tragic events or personal trauma. We often live through our minds and our memories. And central to our psyche is growing plants on farms and in the garden. We think back on long summers, often with good weather, spent outside.

Beautiful blossoms such as roses, dahlias, delphiniums and lavender rest in our mind's eye as symbols of traditional Irish gardens, timeless places where everything is always a-okay. And at this time of the year, a humble little plant that creeps along the ground before producing some smiling flowers and then the most luscious summer fruit of them all - the strawberry.

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On roads throughout the country, stalls are set up from the back of cars and sweet, luscious Wexford strawberries are sold by the punnet-load. And there's nothing more delicious than plucking one of those juicy fruits straight from the garden. They're versatile enough to be grown in borders, containers and even hanging baskets - the latter being a good option to keep them clear of snails.

At home I grow them in a raised bed, and I spent a couple of hours this week giving them some TLC. Weeding is one of the main jobs. It's important to allow the plants to gain the maximum moisture and nutrients from the soil. Weeds can harbour pests and diseases. In my plots, a lot of fruits were forming, so it was time to put some strawberry mats or straw down to keep the fruit clean of the soil and prevent rotting.

I didn't have any straw handy so I recycled some bubblewrap which I think will do a similar job - you could also use black polythene which will warm up the soil earlier in the season. It will also suppress further weed growth and retain moisture in the soil. I finished by giving a high potash seaweed feed around the base of the plants - it's best to avoid water on the foliage or fruits at this stage.

My final task was to put some fine mesh over the fruits - each year the birds have managed to get far more from these strawberry plants than me! Horticultural fleece would also be suitable. I'll continue with regular watering and another feed in a fortnight.

If you haven't got a crop growing now, you could buy cold store runners which are ready to be planted and should bear fruit within 60 days. Or get planning for an autumn planting - buy runners at the end of the summer. Plant in a sunny, well-nourished soil around 18 inches apart. A sunny, sheltered position is best. As with other food plants, practice crop rotation and avoid, if possible, planting where potatoes, tomatoes and chrysanthemums have been growing. Strawberries can be prone to some root diseases such as verticillium wilt which can build up in the soil.

In spring, give your plants a general fertiliser and then, in early summer, a high potash feed while they are forming berries. After harvest, cut away any dead leaves and clear straw or matting away.

You will get around three to five years from a strawberry plant - after that, you will need to replace.

If you don't get a glut of strawberries for a couple of weeks, try planting early, mid-season and late-season varieties. 'Mae' is one of the earliest croppers; 'Elsanta', which you always see in supermarkets is a mid-season, and 'Florence' is a late cropper. Or plant perpetual varieties which produce smaller berries over a long season; for example 'Mara de Bois', which has a lovely wild flavour.

Top Tip

You can propagate strawberry plants quite easily from the mother plant, which sends out runners. Peg these down and they will form new baby plants.

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