Expert fruit farmer Mark Diacono chooses the best strawberries, picking out varieties which will keep you in fresh strawberries all summer.
When I was a delightful wee child, I was dragged kicking and screaming from the television and into the summer sunshine to visit the local pick-your-own farm. As is traditional, the adults carefully placed fruit into punnets as the kids squeezed as many berries into their mouths as possible.
I was introduced to the wonderful loganberry that sunny day, but perhaps the biggest shock I had was eating my first strawberry warm from the plant. These were like no strawberries I’d ever known. I stopped eating and picked some to take home as, even at that age, I knew I’d want more the next day — and the day after, and the day after.
I am still surprised every time I taste the first homegrown strawberry of the year. It is somehow even finer than my memory tells me it will be and it is all the inspiration I need to keep doing the few things that mean I get to enjoy them year after year.
The best strawberry varieties to grow at home
Most fruit is perennial, so you’ll be enjoying (or otherwise) the quality of your choice of varieties for years to come. Flavour should be paramount, but also have an eye on when they produce. I’m not much of a preserver, so I tend to like a long season rather than a glut, which guides my choice.
‘Mara des Bois’ comes next, giving me delicious berries from mid August into autumn. These are my non-negotiables; the rest come and go, as I try different varieties.
The latter is not only delicious and productive over a long season, but its pink flowers and intense scent also offer reasons to plant it. I suspect it may become a non-negotiable one, too.
I often grow new varieties in containers. Strawberries are so well suited to container growing and it gives me a chance to see how good they are before committing them to my precious space in the garden. Harvesting is easier, slug damage reduced and the plants and fruit are well exposed to sun and breeze.
The form of some varieties is especially suited to containers, with ‘Montana’ perhaps my favourite of these: it’s compact, has a great flavour, sends out a flurry of white flowers in spring and offers a long season of good-sized, sweet fruit.
How to grow strawberries, from planting to harvesting
The late spring is a good time to start tasting varieties before sourcing plants for your garden. You can plant strawberries in winter or even spring, but you are likely to have to wait a year for the fruit. Late summer into autumn is the ideal time to get new plants in the ground.
It gives the roots a spell developing in the still-warm soil and there’s something about investing a little time as the days shorten for a pay off next summer that stirs the heart. It’s the best sort of present to yourself.
Strawberries need good sun, a well-prepared soil and proper spacing in order to thrive and produce well. Allow 18in between plants and at least 2ft 6in between rows. Spread the roots widely, ensuring the crown is level with the surface of the soil, backfill and gently firm in.
Water well and keep watered over the following weeks as they establish. Strawberries are shallow rooters, so watering through dry spells and keeping them free of weed competition is vital.
Mulching, tidying and feeding are small things that make a great difference to the health of your plants. Straw was traditionally used as a mulch — hence their name — to retain water, suppress weeds and keep the fruit off the ground and exposed to the sun and breeze: I often use shredded paper if I can’t get straw.
Once the harvest is done, I prune off tired fruiting stems, runners and leaves and add well-rotted manure to keep the plants healthy and ensure next year’s harvest is abundant.
A plant will usually give you four years of excellent productivity, so it’s good to plan a nice staggered replacement programme. You can buy new plants or propagate from existing plants: look online to see how. I tend to shift out one-third each year, which ensures I’m never down on the crop and it spreads out the expense and propagation time.
Mark Diacono grows edibles, both usual and unusual, at Otter Farm in Devon — www.otterfarm.co.uk
A British summer without strawberries would be unthinkable.
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