Traditionally, strawberries are grown in the ground, with straw placed beneath the fruits to stop them rotting on wet soil, and to help keep slugs and snails from decimating them. So what simpler way to grow strawberries than in containers, free from soil splashes and marauding pests?
Your very own strawberry patch might be a wooden wine crate, a series of terracotta pots on a ledge, a sunny windowbox — the sunnier the spot, the sweeter the berries — or a hanging basket, where the fruits can dangle over the edge looking picture-pretty, yet in arm’s reach for easy picking.
A terracotta strawberry pot, with a central reservoir for even watering and planting pockets at intervals around the exterior, is practical as well as decorative. If you can just provide a sunny wall on a balcony, you can pin up a two-foot high, wall-mounted planter with vertical planting pouches and built-in watering system, then sit back and enjoy a veritable cascade of fruits come summer.
Aside from looking gorgeous, providing scalloped leaves and white or pink daisy-like flowers before the fruits appear, strawberries, of course, are all about the flavour. Unlike commercial varieties, garden strawberries are not bred for their long shelf life and thicker skin, so you can have your pick of the crop.
Gariguette is the conical Provençal strawberry that is the chef’s favourite and, claims enthusiast Raymond Blanc, has unparalleled perfume and complexity of flavour as well as a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. It fruits for just a few glorious weeks in mid-summer.
But for a fruiting period that extends to mid-autumn, plant my favourite, Mara des Bois. It brilliantly combines the unique perfume and taste of the tiny woodland strawberries with the size and succulence of modern varieties.
If you fancy spreading your own strawberry jam on croissants come summer, June-bearing Honeoye will obligingly give you a large crop in a short time, and has a rich, fruity flavour that lends itself perfectly to preserves.
For something very different, choose Snow White, a vanilla-coloured strawberry studded with scarlet seeds that fruits from early summer intermittently until mid-autumn.
Don’t be fooled by Snow White’s pale countenance — in seed company Suttons’ strawberry trials, this berry came out sweetest of all, delivering an intensely aromatic flavour redolent of pineapple.
You can buy or order plants right now, planting them six inches apart in a windowbox, and three to a 12-inch hanging basket, mixing a handful of water-retaining gel into the compost. When the flowers start to appear, feed weekly with liquid tomato fertiliser.
In mid-summer, the plants produce runners — long stems with a baby plant at the end of each. You can cut them off to concentrate the flavour of the growing fruits or, alternatively, peg down the baby plant in a pot of compost, leaving the runner intact. When the plant has rooted after a couple of weeks, snip it off, and you have a new plant ready to grow for the following year.
Pick the strawberries when they are fully ripe for the best flavour. Blanc recommends that, if you refrigerate strawberries, take them out of the fridge at least an hour beforehand, or the flavour will be dulled.
I have a better idea. Pick them while they’re still warmed by the sun, and pop them into your mouth, straight away, for the finest treat of the summer garden.
- Suttons: wall tower as well as all varieties mentioned above.
- Thompson & Morgan: strawberry pouches, Stackapot system and many varieties, including a full-season strawberry collection from June to November.
- Lubera: many new cultivars, including long-fruiting Parfum Fraisonette for balconies and climbing strawberry Elan.