Friday, 20 May 2011

Nationwide strawberry panic!

Summer = strawberries
 'Strawberry boom may be out of juice by summer', says The Independent, with typical understatement.

That's right, tennis fans, that incredibly hot April we had may have done even more damage than we thought. In addition to out-of-season sunburn and the chore of having to unpack summer wardrobes early, the temperature has apparently also impacted on the strawberry growing season. Strawberry farms across the south are reporting that the plants are cropping earlier than in the last decade and may peak before Wimbledon. Firstly, how quaint does a 'strawberry farm' sound? They must surely be the preserve (pun intended) of little squirrels in gingham shirts and other such Tales from the River Bank characters. Secondly, I note the article is full of 'may' and 'could' and 'perhaps' - I'm pretty sure that you get strawberry varieties that crop at different times through the summer and surely some farms will have produce for Wimbledon? Frankly, I'm amazed that the overpriced strawberries at Wimbledon are actually British-grown anyway - surely a larger profit margin is to be had from shipping in under-ripe Elsanta's from Holland and Spain and giving them the briefest of introductions to some mass-produced cream? Or is that too cynical?

What I find the more interesting part of the article is the news that pick-your-own farms are reporting an increase in the number of people stuffing themselves in the fields and effectively only paying for half what they've picked - making it more like pick-your-own-and-eat-it-so-you-only-pay-for-what-you-pack. I can't believe that this hasn't always been a problem for PYO farms so I'm not sure why it's being reported on now. What I can't understand is why, if people want to pick their own strawberries, they don't employ a GYO (grow your own, dummies!) attitude.

Established fruit from last year
We've found strawberries to be one of the easiest crops to grow. Stick 'em in a pot with some compost, sit them in a sunny spot and water regularly. You'll be rewarded not just with lovely fresh fruit but if you pot on the runners, additional plants for next year for free. Strawberries have a three-year life cycle, so it's a good idea to try and propagate runners to replace about one-third of your crop each year so that you maintain your stock (propagate more if you want to increase it).We bought about 25 plants last year of a single variety and had about 10 plants from the runners to pot up for this year - although we could have had more. These were spread between terracotta pots under our pergola and hanging baskets - I can't say that there was much difference between them for cropping, although obviously it was easier to propagate the runners from the plants on the ground!

This pot holds some of the plants we propagated from runners last year - they're looking very promising!
This year we've bought another 20 plants, of two new varieties, to try and get enough fruit to satisfy our preserving bug, as well as giving us plenty of fruit fresh from the plants. (Watch this space over the summer for progress on strawberry preserving - I want to try strawberry jelly and possibly a cordial, and I'm looking forward to experimenting with some of our new herbs too for fruit-and-herb combinations). Our three varieties all have a different cropping period, which should, in theory, extend the cropping season so that we have fruit from May/June right through until September. I'm not sure if it's that crazy April weather again, but all our plants seem to be at a fairly similar stage and I'd hazard a guess that we'll have our first fruits later this month from each of the varieties. The new plants are in one of the brick-built raised beds with our roses, and will need some straw spreading under them soon to prevent the fruit from resting on the soil and rotting. Again, these should be relatively easy to propagate runners from, so we can maintain our crop or increase it as required for next year. Then the only problem will be finding homes for the new plants!

Strawberry bed
NB. I never pay much attention to planting densities, plus I wanted the strawberries to act like a ground cover plant underneath the roses in this bed, so I packed them in.