At the top of the list of soft fruits for dessert comes the strawberry; and there are those who consider strawberry jam as the best of its class. It is an easy plant to grow, and deserves to be represented, if only by a short row, wherever space can be found for it. It is only too eager to lend itself to quick and profitable propagation, so that a half-dozen plants to begin with will provide the foundation for an extensive strawberry bed.
Ready for Use. Outdoor strawberries are ready for picking in late June, in a favourable year. The shortness of the season during which this fruit is in is allowed to weigh against its cultivation by many who would grow a row or two of plants if picking were not so soon over – and who are not aware’ that the season can be considerably prolonged by planting for early use on a south-facing border and for later use on a north border. Also, different varieties ripen at varying dates. And if a greenhouse is available pot plants can be fruited out of season.
These include: The Duke, very early, can be depended produces pollen very freely, such as Royal Sovereign; Waterloo, the latest strawberry of all.
Nothing very special is needed in the way of soil so long as it is good enough to produce other crops. Whatever manure or leaf-mould or other rotted greenstuff is available should be dug into the planting site as long as possible in advance of planting, so that the ground can settle again, the strawberry needing a firm root-run. If the ground is heavy and lies wet in winter, or is waterlogged in spring or summer rain storms, it should be made porous by digging at least 18 in. deep and working in plenty of sharp grit, sand, or broken mortar rubble throughout the full depth. A position in full sun is essential for early crops.
When and How to Plant.
From August to October, and March to April, are the planting seasons. The earlier period is the better, as plants have time to become established before winter and can be allowed to fruit the following year. Plants set out during March to April should not be allowed to fruit that year; flowers should be picked off, otherwise the plants are sorely weakened.
Plants are obtainable in small pots, or knocked out of pots (in which the runners were rooted), or as runners rooted in the open ground. Those in small pots are above the soil (lacking a surface covering) by means of small forked twigs pushed into the ground, the stem of a berry spray being lodged in each fork. This method is adopted in the case of indoor-grown pot strawberries.
A strawberry bed well made in the beginning should remain profitable for about five years. A bed may cease to bear properly before that. It is easy to provide a stock of young plants for replacement purposes by layering the stronger runners from the most fruitful plants. Method of layering direct into the soil is explained in the section How TO PROPAGATE FRUIT TREES AND BUSHES. The best plan, however, is to layer direct into small flower pots. These need not be more than about 3 in. in diameter (across the top).
The small pots are filled firmly, but not too solidly, to within ½ in. of the top, with good soil, and then sunk full depth in the ground wherever there are strong young plants on runners. The runner plant nearest the parent is always the strongest. This is pressed into the soil in the pot and its runner stem pegged there with a piece of bent wire. The runner stem beyond is cut away, but the connexion with the parent is not interfered with yet.
This is done as early in summer as possible, generally during the first few days of July. The soil in the pots is kept watered, as necessary, and the young plants are sufficiently well rooted to be severed from the parents and planted out in their fruiting places in August or September – or shifted to larger pots for fruiting in the greenhouse as explained later.
If there are not sufficient young runner plants to allow of these being singled – that is, one plant only on each runner being rooted – two or more per runner can be used. But where possible a runner should be restricted to the first young plant that is produced.
Some of the young runner plants may be blind – lacking a firm heart. These are incapable of fruiting and should be rejected for propagation purposes.
Birds, Other Troubles.
Netting, propped up on sticks, will keep birds from the fruit, but ends of rows must be covered in too or birds will find entry that way. It should be placed in position before the onslaught begins. The netting should not lie flat on the plants or birds will simply stand on it and peck through the meshes.
Slugs and snails can be kept at a distance with soot sprinkled freely around the plants; but it must be kept from the berries.
A pet tortoise with access to the strawberry bed can do as much damage as the foregoing combined.
Mildew may be troublesome in dry weather, but it gets no real hold if the soil is kept reasonably moist and the plants are fed with an artificial or with liquid manure. It appears first on the undersides of leaves, usually during May, and if not checked may spread to the berries and cover these with a white mould. Flowers of sulphur or black sulphur should be dusted over the plants at the first sign of attack. It may be applied through small bellows or shaken out of a small muslin bag tied to the end of a stick and jerked, whilst held down low, over the plants.
Strawberry leaf spot considerably weakens plants if the disease is neglected, and both quality and quantity of fruit may be seriously affected. The variety Royal Sovereign appears to be specially liable to this trouble. At the first appearance of the spots the plants should be sprayed with Bordeaux mixture, according to maker’s directions, spraying to be repeated at intervals until the flowers begin to open. Where the trouble has been experienced in a previous year the same programme should be followed, as a preventive of its recurrence, spraying beginning whilst the leaves are still young. Mildew is also prevented from appearing by this early spraying. Weevils may give trouble, the adult beetles attacking shoots and runners in spring, the grubs burrowing into roots and hearts (or crowns) from September until March. Egg-laying activities of these weevils can be interfered with by allowing no rubbish to lie around plants, eggs usually being deposited in such hiding places.
The straw or other mulch should be removed from around the plants directly the berries have all been gathered; this material should then be dug in or buried elsewhere.
Digging is not advisable between strawberry rows – the roots lie shallow – but the hoe should be used vigorously. This tool will reveal pests to the keen eyes of birds, the latter not needing to be kept at bay after the fruit has gone.
Picking the Berries.
Strawberries should be gathered when they assume full colour, but before they become too soft. They should be dry, and as they are easily damaged, careful handling is necessary. For dessert they are picked with the plug and a piece of stem; without the plug, for jam making.
When a row has been cleared, the straw or other mulch should be removed, along with any weeds, the oldest of the leaves picked off and runners that have escaped previous notice – with the exception of those runners that are to be rooted. Top soil should then be well stirred with the hoe.
Preparing for Table.
Pile the finest of the berries, stalks inwards, on a leaf-lined dish, pyramid fashion. The stalks should be removed if strawberries are to be served with cream.
Runner plants that were rooted in small pots should be shifted into 6-in. pots, some time in August, for fruiting in the greenhouse. The drainage hole in each clean pot is covered with crocks and, if possible, a layer of leaf-mould or old manure; then the plants can be removed from the small pots one at a time and transferred.
The potting soil needs to be substantial, not fine. Turfy loam pulled to pieces by hand is best, the pieces being about as large as a walnut. Some old manure or good leaf-mould and a sprinkling of wood ash should also be added.
The plant in position in the larger pot, the prepared soil is worked down around it with the fingers, the pot being shaken a time or two to assist the soil to settle. This needs to be left firm, by moderate ramming, but the firming must not be overdone. The leaves should rest flush with the soil surface, and the latter should be about A in. from the pot rim. The heart of the plant must not be covered.
Potting completed, the pots should be placed outdoors, where shaded from the hottest sun for about ten days, then in full sun. Water will need to be given as required, and the plants should be syringed with clear water every day in the absence of rain; undersides of leaves receiving special attention with the syringe, to check red spider. If any runners form on these plants they should be nipped off when quite small.
After October they will be safer in a frame. If this accommodation cannot be spared the pots should be sunk rim deep in sifted fire ashes, and in periods of very heavy rain or frost the plants should be covered with sacking or light mats. They can go into the greenhouse, after removal from the ashes and after the outsides of the pots have been scrubbed, in January or later. For early forcing a temperature of 45 degrees (by night) is necessary.
The plants should be in full light and be watered only when the soil is drying out. Over-watering ruins them. They should be syringed on fine, bright days, and when the flowers open they should be lightly brushed with a loose wad of dry cotton-wool, or a camel hair brush – this to distribute the pollen and ensure a good set of fruit.
Not more than eight berries should be allowed to a plant, and when these start to plump up the plants should be fed once a week with weak liquid manure or an artificial fertilizer; feeding to be discontinued when the berries begin to colour. The fruit should be propped up with small forked twigs pushed into the soil, as explained in the case of outdoor strawberries.
Fruiting over, plants may be removed from the pots, and after the crocks have been picked away from the bottom of the soil and root mass, be planted out for fruiting (outdoors) again in due course.
It should be noted that strawberries take a great deal out of the soil, so if an exhausted row is to be discarded and replaced with these fruited plants – or with young, unfruited ones for the matter of that – and a fresh site cannot be provided, the old site must be deeply dug and enriched with manure, or hop manure, or plenty of good leaf-mould.