Which strawberry variety would you recommend for a small garden? How do I make a start on bed preparation? ‘Cambridge Favourite’ is a good cropper with an acceptable strawberry flavour. Choose if possible a well-drained soil in a sunny position. Prepare the ground some weeks ahead of planting time, making sure that it is free from perennial weed roots such as those of couch grass, convolvulus, ground elder, nettles, and docks. Dig the soil to the full depth of your spade and incorporate some moisture-holding material such as well-rotted compost or manure. If neither is available, peat will make a useful substitute. Be sure to buy healthy plants, if possible ones with a Ministry of Agriculture certificate. The best planting time is late July to early September.
Although our greenhouse is unheated, would it be possible for us to force some early strawberries?
The simple answer is ‘yes’, but you will need to start with some healthy, well-rooted plants in early September. Two of the best varieties for forcing are ‘Tamella’ and ‘Royal Sovereign’. In September pot the plants into 125 mm (5 in) pots using a peat-based potting compost or John Innes Potting compost No 3; leave a space between the compost and the top of the pot to allow for watering and feeding. Stand the pots outdoors on a solid base after potting: do not put the pots on soil, as they would be an invitation to worms seeking winter quarters. Water only if the compost starts to dry out.
Early in March spray the plants to kill greenfly, remove any dead leaves, and bring the pots into the greenhouse, placing them on a shelf where the light is good. Feed the plants with a high-potash liquid fertiliser every fortnight from now on. You will harvest your fruits several weeks before outdoor plants begin to crop.
We planted ‘Royal Sovereign’ strawberries in October, with high hopes of picking some fruit in June. We harvested only the odd strawberry per plant. Why?
By October the soil is getting cold, and consequently your plants no doubt made little root before winter. Next time, plant before the end of August; when the plants will have time to make not only strong root systems but also strong crowns to house the overwintering embryo fruit-blossom trusses. ‘Royal Sovereign’ needs the best possible treatment, so make sure that the ground is well prepared with some good compost underneath.
We are able to get clean straw for nothing, but a neighbour tells us that it would be better to use plastic sheeting to prevent soil splashing up on the fruit. Which is the better material for the job?
Clean straw is the traditional material, spread out around the plants to protect the fruits. Plastic sheeting has the advantage of absorbing heat and controlling weed growth, in addition to keeping the strawberries clean in wet weather. It is also easier to remove and store than straw, which should be burnt after use.
Three years ago we bought a plastic strawberry barrel and planted it up with some well-rooted ‘Cambridge Favourite* plants. Only the plants at the top survived; and now it has happened again. Advice, please.
The problem with growing strawberries in barrels is unequal distribution of the water: the plants at the top are all right, but those lower down may be either too dry or too wet; in addition, the soil lower down tends to become compacted. A length of plastic drainpipe drilled with holes can be pushed down the centre of the barrel from top to bottom to make watering easier.
Our garden is always inclined to be wet. The soil is not bad, but underneath it is clay. We have tried growing strawberries, but in a wet winter we lose a lot of plants. Is there anything we can do about it?
Your clay subsoil is undoubtedly the cause of the problem. It is preventing good drainage, with the result that stagnant water is killing the roots. Improved drainage would be the answer, but elaborate schemes are not always possible in a small garden. Try growing on the top of raised ridges—a method frequently used in high-rainfall areas and on heavy clay soils. You may also cure the problem if you break up the clay with a spade and add lots of sand and grit.
We have gone to a lot of expense in covering our strawberry bed with a permanent fruit cage. There are no holes in the netting, but we still find birds inside the cage from time to time. Have you any ideas on the subject?
Young blackbirds have a habit of scratching a way in under the netting, and once inside they do a lot of damage. To keep them out make sure that the bottom of the netting is buried at least 150 mm (6 in) below ground, curved outwards and pegged down.
Last year we covered a row of strawberries with large plastic cloches, hoping for protection against a possible late spring frost. It came—and most of the blossoms were frozen. Can you explain why?
Plastic-covered cloches provide protection from cold winds, but when the night temperatures fall rapidly, those under plastic are sometimes lower than the ground temperatures outside the cloches. Additionally, the flower trusses would probably be touching the plastic. A safe precaution would be to cover the cloches with hessian or similar material.
Our garden is in a frost pocket, and more often than not our early strawberry flowers suffer from black eyes; consequently we lose a lot of fruit. We have tried putting straw down before blossoming starts but this has not improved matters. What can we do?
In a situation such as yours strawing-down should be delayed until the fruit starts to swell. Once the ground is straw-covered it cannot absorb and store as much heat during the day, with the result that the night temperature around the open blossom is likely to be lower. Try protecting the plants with glass-covered cloches.
We have always understood that strawberries do best on soils with a pH slightly below 7. Our well-drained medium-type soil is, according to our tests, pH 6.5. Would a little lime be beneficial?
Your well-drained medium loam with pH 6.5 should be fine, but there is an additional question: is the calcium in the soil available to the plants? Lack of colour in the foliage often indicates a low availability of calcium, so if the foliage colour is poor make a light application of garden lime.
Our ‘Cambridge Favourite’ strawberry plants still look healthy after two seasons cropping. Would you advise hanging on to them for another year? ‘Cambridge Favourite’ is one of the most vigorous varieties, but I would expect the fruit to be on the small side in the third year. However, as your plants are still in good health the yield would justify keeping them for another season.
For the last 10 years we have been taking runners from our own strawberry plants (variety unknown), but now for some reason our new bed is not doing well, in spite of the usual careful preparation of the ground. Can you help?
All strawberries grown for cropping sooner or later degenerate, usually owing to viruses invading the stock. This has no doubt happened in your case. Start again with plants covered by a Ministry of Agriculture health certificate— but get rid of your diseased plants first by burning them.
As it is possible now to buy strawberry plants all the year round, we bought some recently in small netted blocks. The soil was dry at the time and several plants have not survived in spite of regular watering. Do they need to be grown on into larger plants before planting out?
I have found it is best to pot them on into 88 mm (3 ½ in) pots using a peat-based potting compost, and I remove the small nets before potting on (even though some manufacturers state that the nets can be left intact). After two or three weeks of intensive care the plants begin to look much better and have developed larger and more efficient root systems, which cut out the risks of losses.