Once you pick your first completely ripe strawberry from your own strawberry patch you can taste a wee bit of heaven and you know summer has arrived. We all strive to get them as early as possible but they must be allowed to ripen fully on the plant as once picked the ripening process stops. They do not improve with storing.
The earliest variety I grow is Mae and I usually grow two rows, one of which I protect with a low polythene tunnel to enhance ripening by a couple of weeks. This also protects them from rain splashing on the fruit and keeps blackbirds from pecking at them. However I also lay fresh straw along the rows to give complete protection from rain splashes. Strawberries under tunnels will need irrigation during any dry spells so the straw is quite essential. Once flowering starts the fruit will need pollinating from bees so lift up the polythene six inches or so on all sunny days.
The row of Mae not under a tunnel will give me a succession of fruit before my other main crops start. This row will need to be protected from birds by netting, though I have noticed that on our allotment site where there is ample food for birds this are not a big problem. Several plot holders do not bother to net and do not get much damage from the local blackbirds. Last year I did not net my strawberries and only lost a few from birds.
I picked my first few berries from my tunnelled row on 30th May this year, and hope to continue to pick fresh fruit from a range of varieties well into October. This is possible with perpetual varieties such as Flamenco. This perpetual variety is not a heavy cropper, but you get a continual supply of berries from mid summer till autumn. Flamenco has a great flavour but some fruits are often misshapen. They will continue to fruit into November even after a few frosts. They look great and very tempting but lack of warmth and sunshine produces a large berry with the texture and taste of a wee bright red turnip.
There are numerous varieties of strawberry available from nurseries and garden centres all over UK, but as they are grown in so many different localities you need to try several varieties to find the best ones to suit your area and soil conditions. Over the years breeders have improved varieties by creating disease resistance from red thread, then botrytis grey mould. Now varieties are bred to be more successful under polythene tunnel production and demand from supermarkets require strawberries to be available over a long period. We have excellent main crop varieties such as Elsanta, then for the earliest fruit Mae, Honeoye and Elvira. The main season can be extended with later varieties such as Rhapsody, Symphony and Florence.
There are several perpetual varieties to try, but some are very shy to produce runners so it is very difficult to increase your stock if you find a good variety. Flamenco does not have this problem.
To keep the strawberry bed in good form to crop it for three years, cut off all the old leaves immediately after fruiting has finished and remove the straw. This can all go onto the compost heap. New leaves will soon appear to feed the crown for initiating fruit buds for the following year.
Autumn is a great time to plant up new rows with freshly dug runners. Make sure they go into soil that is weed free and well cultivated adding in plenty of organic matter as the bed will be down for several years. Plant in rows three feet apart with the plants spaced a foot apart along the row. At times with some varieties having plenty of runners I double up my spacing along the row to get a bigger crop in the first year.
If land is not available till spring then order cold stored runners to plant from March onwards.
During the growing season you can remove all the runners so the crowns produce the biggest fruit, or allow some to grow to form a matted row. This gives a heavier crop but sometimes with smaller fruit in the second and third years.
Plant of the week
Shrub rose Ispahan is a pink highly scented old fashioned Damask rose growing up to eight feet tall. The leaves are quite tough so it does not suffer much from the normal range of rose diseases.
It is a very old rose introduced from the Middle East in the 13th century during the Crusades. It can still be found growing in the wild in Iran.
It is one of the first shrub roses to flower and although it has its main flush in summer it will continue to flower till the autumn.