What spring tastes like

Zahra Ali offers a primer on strawberry cultivation for the home grower

What spring tastes like
You know it’s spring as soon as you begin to see fruit carts loaded with eye-catching, juicy, red strawberries! But for a grower, spring arrives early – when the first tiny buds of strawberry runners begin to show. So I often feel that only a gardener can truly fathom the delight in this fruit.

Strawberries are, most definitely, the easiest fruit to grow in any garden. What is more exciting about them is that they grow in small spaces very cheerfully. Grow them in pots, hanging baskets, planters of any kind or even in PVC pipes! Just give them sun and warmth and they will do wonders for your garden.

ut there are some things you probably did not know about strawberries, and I hope to share them with you here.

The 'Pineberry' varieties can be quite different from the usual colour associated with strawberries

The big ones are not the best tasting!

For the longest time I believed that large strawberries are the best, until one day I brought an Alpine berry plant home. These tiny little berries are veritably small bites of strawberry jam loaded on a nice little bushy plant. Truth be told, these are sweeter and much more satisfying than the regular big hybrids flooding markets these days. The plant keeps producing for the longest time and does not wither away during summer. I also love the size of the plant itself, for it stands up quite tall!

Alpines fill the garden with sweet scents when they turn red and ripe. The white ones have a hint of pineapple flavour in them when ripened. In both cases, the fruits have quite an intense flavour. Since the fruits are not large and the plants don’t produce a heavy crop all at once, this variety is not available commercially. But if you’re growing at home, it’s just the variety you ought to try: so as to enjoy strawberries for a longer and sustained season.

Not all strawberries produce runners

Yes! Unlike what is commonly believed, some strawberry plants do not produce runners or ‘daughter plants’ and need to be cultivated by seeds. Mostly, growers and farmers propagate strawberries with runners that the parent or the mother plant produces by the end of the growing season. These new plants are called ‘daughter plants’ and bear fruit the next growing season.

Yellow Wonder wild berries

You can get strawberries throughout the year!

All strawberry-lovers will love this part the most. You can literally eat homegrown berries all year long if you know about different types of strawberry plants and their growing habits.

Generally there are three types of strawberry plants.

  1. June-bearer: the most commonly available variety in this part of the world – although, technically, for us it bears fruit in early spring. This variety produces fruits for a short period of 3 to 4 weeks. It can be early, mid-season or late in the season when it comes to fruiting in different growing zones.

  2. Ever-bearing: these super productive plants offer fruits thrice a year – spring, summer and fall. The plants produce fewer runners.

  3. Day-neutral: these produce fruits throughout the growing season and will produce some runners.

The red ones are the most common but…

When we think about strawberries we always picture a red, juicy fruit. But strawberries offer a variety of colours of flowers and fruits. Here are some varieties that you can choose from.

Toscana: ‘ever-bearing’ with abundance of pink blooms and red berries.

White Pineberry: unique because of its white colour and red seeds. It is also quite aromatic and tastes like pineapple.

White Soul Alpine Berry: cream-coloured berry with yellowish seeds – a wonderful heirloom variety.

Yellow Wonder Wild Berry: This unique heirloom is similar to the White Soul variety in appearance, with a slightly stronger colour. Many prefer the flavour of this yellow variety over the red one.
Truth be told, these smaller varieties are sweeter and much more satisfying than the regular big hybrids flooding markets these days

Growing strawberries at home

Strawberries can be planted from crowns or runners brought from a nursery or farm. For home growers, it is easy to identify the right time to plant strawberries by simply keeping an eye on the availability of runners in a local nursery. The season begins right after the frost season ends in colder areas and during mid-winter in warmer areas like Karachi.

Strawberries like slightly acidic soil – 5.5 to 6.5 pH. You can achieve that by adding compost or manure to the soil. Watering is essential. Strawberries may need up to 1-2 inches of water daily during the growing season.

Things to remember

Always transplant crowns in the evening or on a cloudy day. This allows the roots to soak in water and also to settle down into their new homes.

Crowns must be aligned with the surface of the soil. Planting them too deep or exposing the crown too much will kill the plant.

Choose containers or hanging baskets for the best visual treat. However, if you want to grow more berries you may chose to grow them in the ground in rows that are 12 inches apart. Containers can be placed in full sun during winters and spring – and brought into partial or full sun as summer approaches. Shade can be arranged for the plants in the ground.

Mulching is also very helpful when it comes to growing strawberries. In fact, this is the reason for these berries to get the ‘straw’ part of their name. In traditional cultivation, straw is used as mulch around the plant to keep the soil moist, weed-free and to protect the berries from the wet soil.

If you have patience, remove the blooms of the June-bearing varieties during the first season to encourage more runners and fruit the next season.

Strawberries are the easiest and the most rewarding fruits to grow in an urban garden where space is a major limitation. These attractive fruits are always pleasing for the eyes.

Since it can never be emphasised enough, I’m going to repeat what I observed earlier on in this article: only a strawberry-grower can truly experience the joy that this cheerful little fruit brings!

Zahra Ali is a sustainability educator, writer and environmentalist. She blogs at cropsinpots.pk. Send in questions about gardening to Zahra@cropsinpots.pk