Best time to plant strawberries

Think ahead to your summer harvest, suggests Gareth Carter





PLANT PROPAGATION, growth, flowering and harvest times are dictated by the seasons. This makes some seasons better for planting and sometimes particular plants are only available for one part of the year. The main time for planting strawberries and garlic is now, in the run-up to the shortest day coming up in June. Garlic and elephant garlic are available now in garden centres for a limited time. Planting now they will be ready for harvest during summer. Strawberry plants can be planted for much of the year but the best results by far are from those planted during May. Strawberries would have to be the most popular berry fruit grown. They fit into any size garden, grow well in pots and containers, and are quick to give results. VARIETIES Some varieties available and do well here in Whanganui. 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. I have been harvesting fruit throughout the summer with a mixture of both types of plants and harvested my last bowlful only two weeks ago in late April. The first ones were ready in October last year. 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. Some seasons as the days shorten in autumn flowering is also initiated and small crop may be produced. Camerosa is a short day variety. This variety is produces large, well flavoured fruit right around Christmas. It is a real winner. Another is ventana. 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. Day neutral varieties include aromas, albion and cabrillo. Two top strawberry varieties camerosa will be available as bare root bundles for a very limited time. The camerosa are instore now. This is the most economical way to buy strawberry plants. Otherwise all the mentioned varieties will be available from late May or early June in pots and punnets. While strawberry plantings can be made year round, planting done in the cooler months tend to result in heavier cropping that plantings made in warmer months. If they are planted too late, i.e. 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 fairly foolproof so anyone can plant them and be rewarded. They can be grown in old car tyres where the heat of the tyres hastens ripening. This method keeps the fruit off the ground and subsequently clean from soil. They can be grown in hydroponics, in glazed or terracotta pots, specialist herb / strawberry planters. They are an edible option to grow in a hanging basket or they can fit in the herb garden. Some grow them along the edge of a vegetable garden and others will dedicate a spot to mass produce their favourite berry. 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, improve the garden with the addition of “Tui Strawberry Mix” or “Tui Sheep Pellets”. These will work to improve soil structure and add nutrient as well as bulking up the soil can give height that will aid in good drainage. MULCHING & FEEDING Mulching the soil surface between plants will prevent weeds, maintain an even soil temperature and prevent moisture loss in summer. A mulch will also help to keep the fruit clean. Suitable mulches include straw, sawdust, pine needles, pine bark or wood shavings. GARDENING 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. CULTURAL NOTES Strawberry plants will produce significantly more fruit if they are watered and fertilised regularly. Like many plants you can buy a specially blended fertiliser such as “Tui Strawberry Food”. While they like to be well drained, plants will need to be watered during the summer months. . 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 for the next year’s fruit production if these are removed before growing too much as they will drain the plant of energy that will benefit next season’s fruit. However in the 2nd and third season saving some runners and replanting will allow you to replenish or enlarge your strawberry patch. For plants that are starting their 2nd 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, just keep an eye out for slugs during spring which may eat the new leaves, and the occurrence of aphids and mites during the summer months, which may require control using bee friendly “Yates Mavrik”. Planting strawberries is ironically a great way to attract birds. Bird control is essential but seems to be an 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 and eat those precious berries. The netting also needs to be secured around the base to stop entry. How many to plant? A rule of thumb is to plant five plants for each family member. If you want to eat bowlfuls every night during summer then plant more! Gareth Carter is general manager of Springvale Garden Centre