I challenge you to find a strawberry that tastes anywhere near as good as one you’ve grown yourself. Ask any gardener and you’ll find that home-grown strawberries are one of our best-kept secrets – so much better than shop-bought!
Strawberries can be grown in so many ways – in the ground, in pots, or even dangling down seductively from hanging baskets – and by following a few tricks of the trade, they’re super-easy too! If you want to grow sweet, juicy strawberries every time, you’ve come to the right place: Welcome to our strawberry growing masterclass!
Types of Strawberry
I want to be sure I can pick strawberries for as long as possible, which means choosing a selection of varieties that – together – crop over a long period. And for this, strawberries are divided into three main types.
Summer-fruiting or June-bearing strawberries tend to produce fairly large fruits all in one go over the course of just a few weeks. Within this group, there are early, mid- and late-season varieties that will swell their fruits anytime from early to late summer – or even from spring in warmer climates. If you want armfuls of berries with which to make jam or to freeze, then summer-fruiters are the way to go.
Then there are everbearing strawberries, also known as perpetual or all-season strawberries. These guys don’t have the biggest berries, but the tradeoff is that they will produce on and off throughout the summer and even into early autumn. If you want a steady but smaller supply of berries to pick as and when, this may be the type for you.
Closely related to the everbearers are day-neutral strawberries, so-called because they don’t respond to daylength like other types of strawberries. They will produce their tempting berries throughout the growing season in a small-but-steady flow, so long as the weather is warm enough.
|Summer-fruiting / June-bearing
|Everbearing / Perpetual
|Short, intense cropping period
|Small flushes over longer periods
|Steady production all season long
|Fruits in the summer
|Fruits from summer to autumn
|Fruits from summer to autumn
|Vigorous runner production
|Moderate runner production
Separate from all the above, kind of in a little world of their own, are alpine and wild strawberries. These are much smaller plants that form tiny berries, but they have an almost impossibly intense flavour – perfect for topping your morning porridge for example! Once established, they will pretty much look after themselves, making an attractive edging plant or even growing out from cracks in paving or walls!
Some strawberry varieties have an award-winning reliability and resistance to pests and diseases – quite literally, earning themselves either an All-America Selection or a Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit. If you’re just starting out with strawberries, or you’re bewildered by the huge range of varieties promising all sorts of benefits, these are a good place to start:
How to Plant Strawberries
Strawberries will grow just about anywhere but you will get the best results – meaning sweeter, more fragrant fruits, and more of them – if you grow your plants in the sunshine. A minimum of six hours is fine, but eight hours or more is even better for the very sweetest, most aromatic berries!
Before planting, mulch the soil with well-rotted manure or garden compost. You might also like to add a small handful of organic fertiliser such as blood, fish and bone to give your strawberries an extra boost.
Strawberry plants are most commonly sold potted, but if you can find bare-root strawberries or runners they offer really excellent value for money. They look fairly shocking – without any leaves and rather scraggly – but don’t let that put you off. As soon as they hit the soil, they’ll romp away!
Many commercial growers plant strawberries through black plastic. The dark colour absorbs the warmth of the sun, which helps to warm the soil early in the season. It will also suppress weeds and slow evaporation, and all while keeping the berries themselves free from mud splash.
You could do this at home by using old potting mix sacks. Cut along the seams to open the sack out, then flip it so the black side faces up. Tuck in the edges and secure it in place with U-shaped pins. Cut an X-shaped slit to plant and water through.
I’m not that keen on using plastic on the soil like this for prolonged periods, and there’s always the risk that slugs might lurk beneath it. One plastic-free alternative is to use strawberry mats made from natural materials such as coir, but these can be on the pricey side and you’ll need to make sure they’re wide enough to help keep the berries up off the soil – something some makes don’t manage.
I prefer a mulch of the strawberry’s namesake – straw! I also think it looks just a lot more attractive too. If you can’t get hold of straw, you could use dried grass clippings.
Plant your strawberries about 18 inches (45cm) apart. You can go closer than this in containers, as we’ll discover shortly. Planting at the correct depth is important. Potted strawberries are easy to get right – they just go in at the same depth as they were planted in the potting mix in the container, but for bare-rooted plants make sure you don’t go too deep or too shallow. Too deep and the plant may struggle and could potentially rot away; too shallow and it’ll rock about in the wind and dry out really easily, creating a weak and brittle plant. You want the crown of the plant – where the stems of the leaves emerge – to be every so slightly proud of the soil surface.
These plants will remain relatively small in their first season, so this is a good opportunity for companion planting. Garlic is a fantastic companion to strawberries: it doesn’t just keep the vampires away, it also helps deter pests like spider mites.
If you’re using straw, add it later in spring once the plants start to flower. By this stage the plants will have grown on a bit, so they’re not smothered by the mulch.
Planting Strawberries in Containers
With their compact habit and quick cropping, strawberries make an excellent choice for container growing. By raising the strawberries up off the ground they won’t get muddy and are less likely to be nibbled by slugs.
I’ve grown them in wide containers with great success, and have even grown them in hanging baskets, where the ripe berries hang down, inviting you to pick them. However, in my experience many purpose-sold strawberry planters aren’t great. With the planting pockets on the sides, I find that potting mix often gets blasted out when you water, exposing the plants so they wobble about and dry out. For this reason it’s better to look for containers with cupped planting pockets if you want to grow them vertically.
Alternatively, try making a strawberry cascade instead. This uses three containers of progressively smaller size, starting with the largest at the bottom, and all-purpose potting mix blended with some soil-based mix to give it a bit more body and stop things slumping down too much.
To help keep the pots centred, thrust a bamboo cane down through the middle. Fill the largest pot halfway then insert your middle-sized container, threading it down over the bamboo cane. Fill the middle container halfway, then nestle the smallest pot in at the top. You can now go back and fill the other two pots to the rim.
What you’ve essentially done is create three tiers for the strawberries. When the plants are fully grown this will have a really fabulous visual impact! Tuck three plants into the bottom container, two in the middle pot, and one on top. As the weather warms up the plants will muscle up, and there’ll be strawbs-a-plenty by summer!
You could use colourful containers or even plastic buckets graduated in size for this – anything to get that height – so long they have (or you make) drainage holes in the bottom.
Caring For Your Strawberries
The big tip with strawberries is to keep them well watered while they establish and during dry weather. Try to aim the water at the base of plants so the fruits don’t get wet, which could encourage mould. Watering is especially important for container-grown plants, which won’t be able to get their roots down into the native soil. If you’ve planted a strawberry tower, the planting areas on top will naturally need more water than those lower down as the water trickles down when watering.
Watch out for frosts early on in the season, when plants are flowering. Strawberries are super-hardy, but if a frost can turn the flowers into a blackened mush that won’t produce fruits. Cover flowering plants with row covers or cloches should a frosty night threaten.
Once your strawberries start to flower, begin feeding with a high-potassium, liquid tomato feed to encourage good fruit production. Your plants will also benefit from an organic, general-purpose fertiliser early in spring, as they set into growth, to help power them up for the new season.
Do take the time to mulch around your strawberries – it really will help to keep fruits clean and blemish-free. As I said, I’ll be using straw for this, which will then be removed right at the end of the season to make it easier to tidy up plants ready for winter by cutting away any old and dead foliage.
Watch out for birds! Netting is one option to physically keep them off developing fruits – just make sure it’s in place before the fruits start to swell and colour-up. Another (some might say genius!) method is to paint strawberry-sized pebbles bright red and nestle them in among your plants in the lead-up to ripening time. Birds will pop down to peck at the ‘berries’ and get a rude awakening, putting them off a return visit.
Or save up empty jam jars and pop them over the strawberries just before they start to ripen. Make sure the jars point downwards or sideways to prevent rain accumulating. This also creates a little warm micro-climate to ripen fruits faster.
The other pest to watch out for is slugs. Set up beer traps among your plants, or try other organic slug control methods.
The real joy of growing your own strawberries is that you can harvest them at the peak of perfection when they’re perfectly ripe. Never again will you have to eat these insipid fruits – you know the ones – with that big band of white at the top where they haven’t fully ripened! Hard, flavourless nasties – pah!
Pick fruits in the warmth of the afternoon for maximum flavour. They’ll keep okay in the fridge, but the chill does knock back taste, so bring them out to warm back up to room temperature before eating if possible.
Loads of strawberries? Freeze them, dehydrate them, or turn them into delicious jams that’ll turn breakfast into the highlight of the day!
Strawberries produce long, wiry stems called runners, with little plantlets growing at intervals along them. You can use these to grow more strawberries by just pinning the plantlets down to root and then severing them from the mother plant once they have. It’s achingly easy to do and immensely satisfying!
Unless you’re looking to grow more strawberries like this, it’s best to remove the runners so all of the plant’s energy goes into building itself up and producing those luscious fruits. This is especially important in the first season of growth – we want plants to concentrate on beefing themselves up, not starting the next generation just yet! That said, as older plants start to become less productive after a few years, propagating new plants from runners is a great way to replace them.
Strawberries can also be started off from seed. This is a really cost-effective way to get lots of plants very quickly, though it will take a little more effort. Scatter seeds over the surface of a pot of seed-starting mix and give it a good water. I like to use a pump action mist sprayer for this to to avoid disturbing the seeds. If you don’t have one, you can water the seed-starting mix before sowing so you don’t dislodge the seeds when you water.
Germinate your strawberry seeds indoors in the warm, and then, once they’ve grown on a little and been transferred into their own plugs or pots, they can come back outside into a greenhouse or cold frame. Plant them in their final positions later in spring.
Early season strawberries can be potted up and brought into the shelter of a greenhouse or cold frame to prompt them to produce an extra-early harvest. This is called ‘forcing’ and it’s as simple as offering a little bit of protection and, hence, warmth from outside conditions to bring on fruits that much earlier – at least a few weeks sooner, perhaps even a month.
Once they have finished fruiting, move them back outside to continue growing. They’ll appreciate the extra legroom, and it will be a lot easier to look after them out there.