Summer just wouldn’t be the same without strawberries. There’s nothing quite like this sweet, succulent fruit, whether you eat it with cream, with ice cream, out of a punnet in front of Wimbledon on the telly, or—best of all—just as they’re picked, with the warmth of a sunny afternoon suffusing the flesh. And quite apart from the flavour, the sweet, almost honeyed fragrance of freshly picked strawberries is unbeatable: a bowl of fruit on a kitchen table will scent the whole room.
If you plan things carefully, and if the weather co-operates, you can have strawberries for a large part of the year, from early summer until autumn. Early varieties include Elvira and Honeoye; some old reliables for mid-season fruit are Cambridge Favourite, Eros, Hapil and Pegasus; and among the later-fruiting cultivars are Florence and Symphony. Growers are constantly developing new varieties, too, so there are new ones to try almost every year. Alpine strawberries, which are less trouble to grow, are another option: the fruit are small, but with an intense, slightly sharp flavour; and the plants make an attractive choice for edging a border, or perhaps a herb bed.
Plants will last for three or four years, after which they will begin to lose their productivity and should be replaced. This need not be an expensive process: you can take advantage of the plant’s own reproductive method to get new ones.
Strawberry plants reproduce by putting out runners (small plants ) at the end of long stems; and May to July is a good time to start preparing runners from existing plants, which will then be ready to plant out in August/September. Choose runners from disease-free, healthy looking plants, and peg down the stems with pieces of wire bent into a U-shape, tent pegs or something similar. After a few weeks the new plant will have developed enough to be cut away from the parent and planted in a new site. If you don’t have time to plant into the new bed, you can pot up the runners and plant them out at a later date. Don’t allow any one plant to produce more than three or four runners: simply cut off any more than you need before they develop. If you’re not going to use the runners, just cut them all off: allowing the plants to reproduce in this way means that energy that would otherwise go into the fruit is diverted to the runners, so you can improve the fruit yield by getting rid of them.
Strawberry plants flourish when grown in full sun, out of the wind, and in slightly acidic, fertile, well-drained soil, so if you’re going to plant strawberries this year, make a bed ready for them by digging it over and adding a good amount of well-rotted manure, garden compost or leafmould. Space the plants, when they’re mature enough to plant out, about 30–45cm (12–18 inches ) apart and allowing about 75cm (30 inches ) between the rows. Make sure that the crown of each plant is above or level with the surface of the soil, firm it in and water well. (It’s best not to replant the same bed with strawberries for at least five or six years, to prevent soil-borne problems being carried over from a previous planting. )
After you have harvested this year’s fruit, cut away all the foliage, leaving just a few inches of stalk, and clear away any detritus, including straw mulch, from between the rows. This helps to maintain hygiene—strawberries are susceptible to a number of fungal problems, which can persist from one season to the next.