3 Jul 2012

Summer pudding

Summer fruit, Autumn BlissI'm picking a bowl of raspberries and strawberries every day now but have gone off the taste of the strawbs that I'm growing - more often than not, the flavour is insipid. This is my fourth year of food growing in the veg garden and I've found that if you want to get people interested in food growing it has to taste really good. The strawberries were donated to the Veg Patch as runners so I have no emotional attachment to them (unlike plants that I've grown from seed);  think I'll pull them all out and choose a really flavoursome variety for next year.

With a couple of years of strawberry growing behind me, I've come to realise the mistakes I've made and will put that knowledge to good use in rethinking my strawberry growing area.

First, where to put them: Initially I set the plants out in rows, straight into the ground, in the traditional manner although the space was limited. The area gets around 6 hours of sun or good light in clement weather. They grew well and, in no time, were sending out runners.  My careful rows soon disappeared in a mass of plants - a lovely hiding place for slugs! (I almost picked up an e-normous slug the other evening when reaching for a juicy red berry under the leaves.) It's been challenging to get amongst the plants to separate out the runners as the rows were fairly closely planted.  I've recently read that chopping off the runners can send the plant's energy back into producing fruit, a tip worth considering if you don't need to increase your plant stock.   I've now thinned the patch to two rows, front of border with a foot-sized space between.

Second, accessibility: An unforeseen problem I encountered with having a strawberry "patch" was that children would wade in to get at the fruit, regardless of other plants being trampled underfoot. Bending down for an extended picking would also do my back no favours. I've now relocated many of the sturdier plants to a single row at the front edge of a 30 ft long raised brick-walled bed, about 2 ft high and much more attainable. This situation could have been entirely avoided if I wasn't trying to cram too much variety into my tiny space - on an allotment, the rows would (should) be around 30 inches apart, leaving plenty of room for feet both big and small.

Third, finding the fruit: The plants are very leafy with the fruit growing underneath and therefore hard to spot. I like to get to the fruit before the slugs (and birds) do so it's important to be able to see them. Children (and I) don't want to eat fruit that has been previously enjoyed by the animal kingdom. Plants bearing fruit on strong upright stems will be among my top choices for replacement plants - and putting a thick layer of straw under the plants also helps. I've been growing a few Rambling Cascade plants (from Victoriana) and they seem to have large fruit on upright stems so that's heading in the right direction. So far I've picked only one or two berries from these plants as they seem to be later in fruiting - the taste is semi-sweet and slightly floral.  In fairness, the smaller quantities may be due to being in a slightly more shaded area, although they would, in a normal year, get plenty of sun.

As usual, the garden is teaching me a lot this year. I'm amazed at how much I didn't know when I started. I believed it was as easy as it says on the seed packet - a triumph of expectation over experience. This year has, so far, has forced me to learn about bugs, pests, shifting seasons and now soft fruit.

With strawberries, the essentials are: Buy good plants to start with, plant with the crown at soil level, give them space to grow, mulch with straw or plant through black plastic (to retain moisture, keep weeds down and slugs at bay), chop the top leaves down after fruiting (except on perpetual fruiting plants) so that the new leaves on the crown can grow and, finally, replace the plants every 3 years to prevent disease or pests getting a hold.

I owe my rapid learning curve to the RHS website. Good videos, recommended varieties, top tips and recipes are just a click and a link away.


14 comments:

  1. Top notch information Caro - my best, cleanest, slug-free strawbs have come from the hanging baskets. I don't think I'm going to bother with them in the ground any more - as you say a lot of backbreaking work.

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    1. I've got a white strawberry on my balcony and even that isn't pest free as it's fallen prey to greenfly - as has everything else up here! A couple of squirts of ecover pest spray should do it (and then a good wash before eating as I don't want them to taste of washing up liquid!).

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  2. Maybe they would be ok for jam. Rhubarb and Strawberries together make a delicious crumble.

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    1. Funnily enough, Bridget, I put my strawberries with apple rings into a crumble! I have a hand operated gadget for peeling, coring and slicing apples which the kids love so I end up with lots of dried apple rings, apple purée and crumble fruit at the end of the week - not complaining though!! I like the sound of rhubarb and strawberry and have grown several rhubarb plants from seed this year. Have you tried sweet cicely leaves chopped into your rhubarb crumble? It sweetens the fruit and the seed pods are delicious (if you like licorice!)

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  3. It's certainly a learning curve. I planted my first bed up with three different varieties, which eventually all mingled in with each other due to the runners tangling from one side of the bed to the other. This time, there's one variety in the bed, and I've promised myself that I'll make sure I snip the runners off before they get in to the state they did in my previous bed.

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    1. Good idea Jo. I've been cutting many runners off my remaining two rows, the plants are desperate to propagate themselves! The only ones I'm going to allow to stay are from the Rambling Cascade plants which look very vigorous. Like Welly, comment below, I'm going to look out for a later cropping berry so that I can extend the season - I'm not completely off the idea of strawberries just yet!

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  4. Excellent advice in this post Caro. My plants at the allotment are now at the three year old stage so starting a new patch is very much on the cards. The nameless plants were given to me by plot neighbours and fortunately produce most tasty pickings. I have two beds at the moment but will downsize - there are only so many strawberries two of us can eat and share with friends/freeze/jam etc. Mine were planted directly into raised beds but weeding has become a big issue especially this year. I'm going to follow another plot neighbour who plants into a raised bed on mounded soil and through black plastic, which is kept in place by a gravel edging. Seems to be a most effective method. I took some runners from my plants last year which are in pots waiting to be transplanted. Will also be looking for a late fruiting variety to extend the season :)

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    1. Thank you Anna. Sounds like you're being very organised, having already got some runners ready to be transplanted. I think that planting into mounded soil and through black plastic is the way to go. Luckily strawberry plants seem to be very tolerant of being moved so I'll be using this method at the end of the fruiting season when I chop back the leaves. Having thinned the patch and cut off the runners, the plants are already responding well with bigger, firmer fruit on nice high stems to perhaps they were just feeling a bit tired!! I picked up a white fruiting strawberry at Jekka's herb farm earlier this year so will be hoping for some runners from that. A late fruiting variety is an excellent idea to extend the season as well, especially when strawberries are so expensive to buy.

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  5. Have to admit that raspberries are my preference, simply for the reason that you have given, lack of flavour in strawberries. Maybe, like you, I will have to try again!

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    1. Pauline I'll give strawberries one last chance if I find a really tasty variety - if not, out they go! I'm not sentimental when it comes to plants and, yes, I'd much rather have raspberries!

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  6. I much prefer raspberries so have never bothered too much with my strawberry plants. In fact I keep thinking that I may pull them up and use the space for other things.
    This is a good post for anyone who does like them, and perhaps wants to do better with them.
    Flighty xx

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    1. Very wise, Flighty! I only grew them because the kids love them and seeing strawberries is a real sign of summer - plus they're very expensive in the shops. I have already started to pull mine out and would rather use the space for corn and something low growing for ground cover, more beetroot perhaps? or perhaps some chard? Either of those would get eaten with more delight than strawberries!!

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  7. Hi Caro, I'm picking strawbs by the punnet nearly every other day at the moment. I'm having to freeze them for use at a later day. I do love strawberries but their flavour this year isn't as good as last and I think it is the lack of sun and warmth and too much rain. I've lost a lot to mould and slugs even though they're planted into weed membrane. I'm probably going to move my strawberry bed at the end of this year and replace some of the plants maybe with a later fruiting variety so I don't have such a glut and a longer period of cropping. The best way to learn about gardening is to do it. I spent 3 years doing RHS qualifications which were useful but I've probably learnt more about producing food in the last year or so of having my plot. The real treat on my plot at the moment is the tayberries. It's their first real year of cropping and they're gorgeous.

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    1. I was sitting at my laptop when your comment hit my mailbox, Welly, and I so agree! Definitely, getting out in the garden is the best way to learn. I've been re-reading a number of gardening books that weren't that exciting before I started gardening but are now riveting reads because I can relate better to the text. Interesting that you also think the flavour of strawberries has diminished - I managed to get some really nice ones yesterday by picking in the morning when they were at their peak but for those few there were plenty more that were just nasty. I've been reading up on alternative berries and rather like the idea of tayberries, loganberries and perhaps some honeyberries. Quality fruit that I can look forward to!

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Caro x

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