Gardening: Cream of the crops

By Justin Newcombe

You can still plant for a strawberry harvest, writes Justin Newcombe.

You should only grow young strawberry plants - and replace after three seasons. Photo / Thinkstock
You should only grow young strawberry plants - and replace after three seasons. Photo / Thinkstock

During summer, strawberries are a dime a dozen but the quality can vary from the sweet and quite tasty to the unbelievably disappointing experience of biting into cold white styrofoam. Strawberries are one of those symbols of summer which transcend the garden and are part of popular culture. A rich vein can be found in Americana with everything from the strawberry daiquiri cocktail to the Strawberry Shortcake kids' toy franchise. The strawberry is a potent symbol of romance and along with chocolate could be considered the food of lovers. I personally prefer a doughnut, with strawberry jam: all that deep fried dough, fat and sugar just turns me on.

Luckily for all you Romeo and Juliet wannabes out there, the strawberry is a fantastically easy plant to grow. But to get those astonishingly tasty "just one more thanks" warm summer fruits we all crave there are a few simple tricks you should know about.

First, grow only young plants. After three seasons (some gardeners even say two) your strawberry plants are spent, so get them out. The good news here though is that strawberries throw out hordes of runners which will sucker on to the ground and can be easily lifted and transplanted.

Try taking suckers from your youngest plants only and transplant them away from your original patch.

Strawberries are very susceptible to viral infections which are often soil-borne. The younger, newer plants are less likely to carry disease and the risks are further reduced by moving the plants about the garden. If you follow this advice you'll end up with three small patches of strawberries instead of one big one. Once you've removed a three-year-old patch try not to return strawberries to the same spot for two or three years.

Strawberries love a deep composted, free-draining soil in full sun. They are also notoriously difficult to weed around, so mulch around them with cardboard and pea straw and water them well when they are juvenile. As they come into fruit, water less because the fruit is incredibly susceptible to botrytis which appears as a grey mould. Over-watering also dilutes the flavour and sweetness.

The best time to plant strawberries is actually in late summer. But don't worry if you're just getting started now, you can usually buy plants with fruit already set on them. Strawberries are herbaceous which means they die back over winter and re-appear in spring. With winters in Auckland being so mild, mine don't actually die back. In this situation there is a school of thought which says they should be cut back to reduce the possibility of black spot but I've never worried about it. If you're in an apartment or you have a small garden then strawberries are definitely the plant for you. They do really well in pots or hanging baskets. If you're pushed for time you can buy a bag of specialised strawberry garden mix, cut half a dozen slits in the plastic and pop in some plants. With a little bit of water and some sunshine, there should be some sweet treats waiting for you most mornings this summer.

Do you have a gardening, DIY or landscaping question for Justin?

Email gardening@nzherald.co.nz and we will be happy to help in our fortnightly Q & A column.

- NZ Herald

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