Have you ever wondered what type of plant grows strawberries?
Obviously, it's not a tree. It's short in stature, with no leggy limbs. It's not a shrub either. It doesn't have multiple woody stems; rather it has a crown sprouting several basal leaves.
In fact, it's a forb. A forb and a herb. A herb is a plant that does not produce an above-ground woody structure. A forb is a broad-leafed herb.
So who cares? Possibly no one except plant experts, but it does tell us that as an herbaceous plant, its growth will die back each year while its dense fibrous roots will survive underground. In late winter or early spring plants burst to life, with green top growth. This is why you will find strawberry plants in the garden centres to be planted now, if you haven't already done so.
Strawberries are pretty easy to grow, though whether they thrive or not will depend on how you grow them. When planting, choose a spot in the garden that's sunny. The more sun the berries get the sweeter and more abundant they will be.
Soil should be free-draining, with plenty of organic matter dug in. Compost, well-rotted manure, leaf mould and worm castings are all beneficial. A slow-release fertiliser can also be added at planting time.
If your soil is prone to waterlogging, plant in raised beds or on mounds. Containers are suitable too, but choose large containers to allow the root system to spread. If planting in containers, use a good quality potting mix with a slow- release fertiliser mixed in.
Wherever you plant, think about some form of bird netting. Birds love strawberries and will peck fruit before you have a chance to pick them. A raised bed with a wood and wire cover is ideal, though you can insert stakes around your plant and drape over netting to keep out birds. Old net curtains work well, or buy bird netting from garden centres.
Prepare your soil by digging to a depth of at least 30cm. This allows the roots to penetrate more deeply, lessening the possibility of damage from drought. Strawberry plants are shallow rooting, but if soil is free-draining and dug deeply, the roots will be encouraged to grow downwards. Loosening and aerating your soil is just as important as adding compost and nutrients.
Position plants about 30cm apart to allow for good air circulation. Don't bury the crowns or your plants may rot. Keep the crowns just above soil level.
Mulching is very beneficial, helping to keep the soil cool and moist while the fruit is developing. Water is important during fruit formation. If there is not enough moisture, fruit will be of a poor quality, small or mis-shapen. Fruit typically ripens 30 to 45 days after flowering, so watering will need to be constant just before and after flowering.
A mulch of straw, bark, pine needles, even newspaper will help. It will also be beneficial to keep the fruit from touching the soil and rotting. Rotting strawberries are a magnet to slaters.
If you are growing your plants in a greenhouse, make sure you water regularly and allow plenty of daytime ventilation. If temperatures rise to an extreme, plants may experience rapid water loss which interferes with normal growth. Even when temperatures are reduced and normal watering is resumed, plants and fruit might not grow to their full potential.
Being shallow rooted, strawberries do not like competition from weeds, so clear your potential strawberry patch before planting - and keep it weeded. Mulch will help to suppress weeds.
Some gardeners like to pluck off the flowers during the first year so that the plant puts all its energy into growth rather than fruit production. By removing the flowers, more runners will develop, and you'll get more plants. Others prefer to remove the first-season runners so that the plant's energy goes into fruit production. The next year they allow the runners to form and remove these to form new plants. It's really up to you what you want to do. Not everyone can resist the urge to pick the fruit in the first year. And it's not going to harm your plants to do so.
To get your plants going, feed them now with a fertiliser that has roughly the same potassium, K, ratio as nitrogen, N, - a liquid tomato fertiliser is ideal. Feed again when you see fruit forming.
Grey mould can be a problem during wet and humid weather.
To prevent spreading, remove any infected fruit as soon as you see symptoms. If left on the plant, the entire fruit will mummify and release countless grey spores into the air when disturbed. That's the quickest way to spread the disease, so make sure you keep an eye on your plants.
Mites can also be a problem in greenhouses, or outside during hot dry months.
You will notice mottling on leaves. Blast the leaves with water, focusing on the undersides, which is where the mites gather.
Aside from that, constant watering and good air circulation should ensure good health. And if all goes to plan, you could be picking nice juicy fruit for the Christmas table.
- © Fairfax NZ News