Strawberries are one of the easiest plants to grow.
They will fit into any size garden and also grow well in pots and containers. They are quick to give results. If they are planted now, you can be harvesting fruit from mid-November and through into the summer months.
There are a number of varieties available, a couple of good ones that do well here in Whanganui include Aromas and Camarosa.
Aromas is a newer variety we have had for two years now at the garden centre for two years now. It is described by the breeders, The University of California, as : "This is a day-neutral cultivar which has larger fruit and produces greater yields than Seascape strawberry plants. The Aromas strawberry cultivar produces large quantities of late-season fruit. It also has a broader environmental tolerance and is more resistant to mildew, and is especially tolerant to spider mites. Flavour is very good."
I grew this in 2015 and it performed well with the perpetual summer that we experienced that year. Last year's summer of 2016/17 was, in contrast, one to forget. The low sunshine hours meant cropping was sporadic and yield was low.
I have got both Camarosa and Aromas growing this year. This should give me an early crop from October to January of Camarosa. Then from December to March, Aromas should be fruiting - assuming that we have a good summer this year!
Strawberry varieties fall into two main categories - short day varieties and day neutral varieties. The biggest difference being that the fruiting peak falls at a different time, so if you plant a mixture of these varieties you will be harvesting fruit for a longer period.
Short Day varieties initiate flowering when, as the name suggests, the days are short in winter and spring. Subsequently the bulk of the fruit of these varieties will start in early November, mostly finishing after Christmas. As the days shorten in autumn, flowering is also initiated and a small crop may be produced. Camarosa is a good short day variety.
Day Neutral varieties in contrast will fruit any time of the year when the temperatures are warm enough for growth. These varieties tend not to have such a large flush of fruit at once but produce consistently for a longer period. Aromas is a good producing Day Neutral variety for Whanganui.
While strawberry plantings can be made year round, planting done in the cooler months tends to result in heavier cropping that plantings made in warmer months. If they are planted too late - closer to the longest day (December), they will tend to produce an abundance of runners instead of fruit.
Where to grow
There seems no limit to how and where strawberries can be grown, and they are foolproof enough that anyone can plant them and be rewarded with fruit! Many will grow strawberries in pots and containers of various forms. If you are planting strawberries in pots make sure you should use a specialty potting mix such as Tui Strawberry Mix. The biggest factor to growing good strawberries is site selection. The plants need a sunny position and a well drained soil that has good structure. When planting strawberries the garden the addition of compost or broken down animal manure will help improve soil structure and by bulking up the soil can give height that will aid in good drainage.
Mulching and feeding
Mulching the soil surface between plants will prevent weeds, maintain an even soil temperature and prevent moisture loss in summer. A mulch such as pea straw will also help to keep the fruit clean. The traditional and very effective method of growing strawberries is to cover the raised mound with black polythene plastic or weed mat, making a small slit for each plant. The black mulch attracts heat increasing soil temperature making fruiting earlier and the fruit clean from dirt.
Strawberry plants will produce significantly more fruit if they are watered and fertilised regularly. You can buy a specially blended fertiliser such as Tui Strawberry food which is blended with the appropriate proportions of NPK and trace elements. While they like to be well drained, plants will need to be watered during the summer months. This is best done in the early morning to reduce the risk of humidity build up.
Strawberry plants will produce good crops for three years after which time the 'mother' plants are best thrown out. The plants will generally produce runners each season during late summer. In the first year it is beneficial to fruit production of the subsequent year if these runners are removed before growing too much as they will drain the plant of energy.
However in the second and third season, saving some runners and replanting will allow you to replenish or enlarge your strawberry patch.
For plants that are starting their second or third season all the dead leaves from the previous season should be pruned off and removed during winter. This helps minimise the hosting of pests and diseases. Plants should then be fertilised in August or early September.
Strawberries are relatively pest free though keep an eye out for slugs during spring which may eat the new leaves.
Planting strawberry plants, like other fruit trees, is ironically a great way to attract birds into the garden.
So to enjoy the fruits of your labour, bird control is essential when growing strawberries and it seems that this is the area where many people come unstuck.
The most effective method is to construct a frame on which bird netting may be draped.
The frame needs to be able to hold the bird netting at least 30cm above the plants so when birds sit on the cloth they are not able to reach through the netting and eat those precious morsels.
The netting also needs to be secured around the base to prevent side entry from the birds, the use of bricks or similar weighting netting to the ground is effective.
There are a number of different frame options from bending number 8 wire or steel into hoops, to making a 'square' frame with garden stakes.
How many to plant?
A rule of thumb is to plant five plants for each family member.
If you want to eat bowlfuls of strawberries every night during summer then plant more!
Have a good week.
Gareth Carter is General Manager of Springvale Garden Centre