Strawberries- reife Erdbeeren

June is the month for strawberries. In the fields, they are usually ripening sweet and fat and ruby red in the early days of the month.  In a lucky, warm and sunshine-y year, you may get some early ripening varieties before the end of May, especially if you go so far as to cheat and use Reemay (a light, porous white cloth) or clear plastic on the rows, but most gardeners don’t go to such lengths and tend to enjoy them only when they ripen naturally.

No fruit could be easier for the gardener with very little space.  As long as you have some space with full sunlight (8 hrs. direct light per day or more) you can fit a few plants in. Strawberries take well to being in raised containers and hanging baskets, window boxes and balconies, even a single plant can go in a wall sconce that has a planting pocket.  Of course, they can also go in the garden! I like them in the ornamental garden too, as they give a dedicated weeder some sweet rewards on a hot summer’s day!

What strawberries like best is good drainage, a pH slightly below neutral (acid), and a sandy loam soil. (What the heck is that? Sandy loam is spongy yet slightly gritty- if you squeeze a handful into a ball it should hold together but crumble when poked. ) I mulch mine with steer manure in spring-that’s generally all the nutrients they need for the year if the substrate is already pretty good.  They’re fairly tolerant of drier conditions (Some of the best berries I’ve seen were growing in a gravel walkway) but make bigger berries when growing in a soil rich in humus that doesn’t dry out too fast in a run of hot, sunny days.  If planting in containers, go ahead and use potting soil and an organic fertilizer like compost or a commercially available one if you don’t compost (“Gaia Green” products rock, and no, I don’t work for them.) Strawberries grow best with ample water, so do treat your strawberry baskets just as you would a flowering basket, maintaining evenly moist soil and watering generously in the morning on hot days.

When choosing strawberries at the nursery, there’s only a few different types of strawberries but a whole array of cultivar names, it can be confusing when looking at tags that don’t list full information. Here’s what you need to know: the three types that are generally available are June bearing, Everbearing and Day neutral.

June Bearing strawberries produce a single, large crop per year during a 2 – 3 week period in the spring. June bearers are the traditionally grown plants, producing a single flush of flowers and many runners. They are classified into early, mid-season and late varieties. The largest fruits of all the strawberries are generally from June bearing varieties. June bearing strawberries are generally bought in spring, allowed a year to establish, and harvested the following year.

Everbearing strawberries produce two to three harvests of fruit intermittently during the spring, summer and fall. Everbearing plants do not send out many runners. Everbearing strawberries will make fruit the first year you buy them. They and the day neutrals can be planted in  spring or fall.

Day Neutral strawberries will produce fruit throughout the growing season. These strawberries also produce few runners. Everbearing and day neutral strawberries are great when space is limited, but the fruits are usually somewhat smaller than June bearers.

Strawberry Closeup Pips

Scott Bauer- Strawberry

Now, after those types comes the many, many cultivars. I’m not going to give you all the varieties available here, or what’s the best berry.  Why?  Well, it’s too hard to say which is best.  A well grown strawberry in the average garden is delicious no matter what! And I can cheat and give you the link right here ( http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/berries/production_guide_pdf/strawberry_variety_newplant.pdf ) to the most common berries for the Pacific Northwest.

Troubleshooting tips: Strawberries are a favourite for slugs, especially during wet weeks when everything stays moist.  Growing in raised beds with a strip of copper encircling the bed can help a lot, they are shocked by copper and won’t cross it if that’s the only way in.  Sprinkling crushed eggshell around the plants discourages them, as they dislike crossing the sharp edges. Hanging baskets are generally slug-free, too. If the above still isn’t doing the trick,  Safers slug and snail bait works like a dream and won’t hurt pets, kids or birds. The old trick with beer, in my experience, generally doesn’t work out here with our giant Godzilla slugs- I swear they just get stinking drunk and slime away unsteadily for another snack.  If you up the ante a bit though, by adding rum (which is both sweeter and more alcoholic, both of which attract slugs) you might have more success. Of course, there’s also the salt shaker or a brick- squish! I recently encountered a video where a woman reused some plastic bottles as slug guards, and they do look wicked.  Video at this addy:  http://myzerowaste.com/2009/06/plastic-bottles-slug/  Uneven berries are sometimes an issue- this is the result of an unevenly pollinated strawberry. You can do it yourself with a paintbrush- wiggle the brush across the center of each flower, going from one flower to another. Usually it’s a result of cooler, wet weather and a lack of bee and other pollinator activity and should resolve itself when the weather is sunnier.  Sometimes berries rot on the vine, causing you to tear out your hair in frustration when you’ve been eagerly awaiting a nice crop: mulch under the berries to keep them clean and the moisture level in the soil consistent. Yes, you guessed it, straw is perfect for this, but make sure you use straw and not hay because hay will have weed seeds in it. You could use any number of other mulches, too- bark mulch, coco fibre, pine needles, newspaper, cocoa husks, whatever you can get! Professional growers use black plastic to mulch strawberries as it heats up the soil and keeps the berries very clean. I prefer organic materials, but it’s your choice. Remove rotten foliage or berries to interrupt the cycle of the fungus. Ensure plants are not getting too wet or too dry to reduce fungal infections- but sometime the weather just won’t cooperate, like at the moment ( it’s been rainy almost every day for 2 weeks and humid when not raining.) In this case, you will very likely get a rotten berry or two no matter what you do, so don’t worry too much about it.  Toss the rotten ones as soon as you notice, and enjoy what’s left- the next fruit set will likely be better.

Strawberries are a good companion plant with pines, so if you have a space in the sun near a pine tree, try some strawberries! Thyme planted next to it or around it discourages worms, and Borage strengthens the strawberries grown near it. (Borage and Thyme are also huge bee magnets, so they’ll help get berries pollinated.) Strawberries also grow well with lettuce, beans, onions & garlic.  Grow strawberries away from brassicas- cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi etc. They don’t like each other. I like planting sedums around my strawberries.  The low ones make a nice tight groundcover and living mulch, they look pretty together and seem to like one another.

A Bit of History

Parker Earle strawberry

Watercolor Strawberry 1890

Strawberries have a long and interesting history. I’ll try to just skim over the highlights;-)There’s some debate as to where the name actually came from, the straw used to mulch them seems an obvious clue, but it may also be from strew-berry, either from the practice of gathering wild berries which were ‘strewn’ all over in woodland clearings and open fields, or the habit of the plant which ‘strews’ it’s runners in all directions. Since straw mulch for growing large amounts of berries was used fairly recently in history, I think the second origin is more likely. Either way, people have collected wild strawberries for millennia, as evidence has been found for stone-age berry consumption. Strawberries were cultivated by the Romans as early as 200 B.C. In medieval times strawberries were regarded as an aphrodisiac and a soup made of strawberries, borage and soured cream was traditionally served to newlyweds at their wedding.  Sounds good to me! The strawberry of medieval hangings and books is the wild strawberry of Europe, Fragraria vesca, a.k.a. fraises du bois, woodland or alpine strawberry.  It wasn’t really farmed, or specifically transplanted to kitchen gardens until almost the 1600’s- until then it was mainly gathered from the wild. The cultivation of it was introduced from Persia, where they had been deliberately cultivating the berry since pre- Roman times.  But wild strawberries don’t just grow in Europe, they are native to the Americas too.  Fragaria virginiana is the North American variant and has slightly larger berries than the European.  American Indian tribes, most famously the Iroquois, transplanted the berries from the woods and raised them in special beds. This would make  strawberries, along with corn, one of the first farmed foods. The native people used the berry fresh, in bread, drinks, soup and as medicine.  Strawberry shortcake may have it’s origins as a native recipe! In the 1600’s it was brought to Europe for crossbreeding, hoping to create a larger, better berry. Then the seminal event that set the modern strawberry industry on it’s road to truly large berries occurred. It happened that a French spy, named Captain Amede Frezier, was observing Spanish strongholds on the west coast of South America when he discovered the giant-fruited Chilean wild strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis, that South American Indians had been cultivating as long as their history could be remembered. The Chilean berry was lumpy and missshapen, but it was BIG, much bigger than any ever seen in North America or Europe. Captain Frezier gathered a few of these plants and brought them back to France. He was not believed when he said the fruit of these plants were the size of large walnuts and he also could not prove it because, unfortunately, all of the plants he had brought with him were female. In order to get them to produce fruit, they were deliberately crossed with the American Wild Strawberry and the end result was the large strawberry, Fragaria ananassa, also called the Pineapple Strawberry. Today, the French word for Strawberry is ‘Fraise’ in honor of the Captain.
The real bulk of the work with Strawberry breeding was intially done by an Englishman, Thomas Andrew Knight, who was the first to breed them in a controlled, systematic manner. American breeders soon followed in producing new hybrids and bigger, better, more prolific berries. But the most important factor in popularizing the Strawberry was not the breeders, but the refrigerated boxcar. New refrigeration techniques in the 1850’s allowed Strawberries and other perishables to be shipped quickly across the country with minimal spoilage, making them accessible to the general public. Suddenly, the popularity of the fruit skyrocketed! ( As did lettuce, but that’s another article.)

Getting Some

Strawberries are available in nurseries early in the year, usually Feb-June.  The most economical way to buy them is in bundles (usually 10 plants each, but check the package.) Sometimes you can get multipacks in the same style of bedding plants, with several individual plugs per package. Strawberries may also be available in planted gallon or two gallon pots, or hanging baskets.  For goodness sake, don’t get your heart set on one plant cultivar because it was in the magazine this month and accept nothing else, because it’s hard to get a bad strawberry if it’s well cultivated- try several kinds, experiment.  What worked well for one person may not be your favourite, what works commercially may not be ideal for a kitchen garden. Nurseries will only carry what works for the local climate, so you’re pretty safe just choosing at random and giving it a try. If it doesn’t work for you (too firm, too soft, too tart, etc.) then try another one next year (or move the plants to another spot) and give away the ones you don’t like (can you imagine anyone saying no?)  Some nurseries sell wild type strawberries, possibly labeled as ‘alpine’ or ‘woodland’.  They’re nice to have and the tiny berries are delish, but one word of caution.  Left unchecked, they can go insane. Rampant. Riotous. If you’re okay with a useful plant growing wildly, then this is a good thing for you, but I thought there should be a warning before you rush out and plant a bunch. Another way for the thrifty gardener to get plants is to take runners from plants you already know and love.  Someone you know have a few plants? Get their runners, which are the ‘pups’ or young plants that grow attached to long stems to the mother plant.  You’re helping the original plant’s berry production by taking the babies away, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble enticing your friends to be generous!

May you smell like dirt,

LeilaBee

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