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The strawberry (Fragaria sp.) is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae). It is possibly the most widely cultivated fruit in the world, owing to its popularity and ease of growing by the average gardener from cool temperate to tropical climates.
Varieties of strawberries
There are many varieties of strawberries, leading to a vast array of flavours and colours. The principal varieties include:
- Alpine or wood strawberry (known in French as fraise des bois) (F. vesca)
- Scarlet or Virginia strawberry (F. virginiana)
- Beach strawberry (F. chiloensis)
- Musk strawberry (F. moschata)
- Wild strawberries (various)
In the USA, the leading strawberry growing states are California, Florida and Oregon.
Annual or several year plants
Strawberries are usually grown over several years, up to five or six years, with the middle years producing the best crops in terms of bounty and taste. The first year will produce tasty strawberries, but not as many as later years. However, some people prefer to grow them annually only, for reasons of space or disease avoidance, etc.
Older strawberry plants produce strawberries that have less flavour and less pectin. This will affect both cooking and preserves making, so adjust sugar or other sweetener levels accordingly.
- Dig the ground over. Do this either the preceding autumn (fall) or late winter. Dig in manure that has been rotted well or fine compost.
- Plant strawberry plants in the ground in early to mid spring. The exact time for planting will depend on the variety (June-/summer-fruiting strawberry, ever-bearing strawberry or alpine strawberry). You'll need to pursue more details depending on the variety.
- Plant strawberry plants about 45cm apart. If planting in rows, keep the rows about 90cm apart.
- When planting, keep the strawberry crown level with the soil. This must not be covered by soil.
- Firm the soil around the plant. Water regularly for the first weeks of growing. (Do not water emerging berries directly.)
- Pick off the first blossoms. This will encourage stronger growth for the following season. It will also be important to pluck off runners, as these deplete the plant's energy.
- Encourage bees. Bees will pollinate the strawberry flowers. Have bee-friendly plants in the garden to attract them.
- Watch for snails. To keep them away, a good mulch can work wonders, as can daily picking off of the garden pests (relocate them a long way off).
- Protect from birds. When the strawberries ripen, the birds will be keen to eat them in some gardens. Place netting over the top to prevent access to the berries. The netting can be held up by small posts, jars, overturned pots or other items spare in the garden.
Note that ever-bearing or perennial strawberries can be grown under cloches, extending their growing season into earlier spring and later autumn.
Propagating strawberries from runners
- Select one runner per strawberry plant to keep. Pluck off all remaining runners, to stop the plant's energy going into making runners instead of berries.
- Peg the runner into the ground or a pot of soil. Use a U shaped wire to peg down the runner.
- Wait. The runner will root in about 4-6 weeks. Sever from the parent plant and grow the new plant either where it is or transfer it from the pot to a new place in the garden.
- Water well if replanting a rooted runner from a pot.
Pick strawberries when they appear very red and have just started to soften. Harvest when it's early morning or evening. Cooler times of the day are best for picking strawberries.
If you're buying strawberries from the farm gate or farmers market, look for the following characteristics in the strawberries:
- Fully formed
- Bright red
- No bruises
- Fresh green leaves (caps).
Under-ripe strawberries will turn red but won't develop the essential strawberry sweetness.
Store strawberries unwashed. Store uncovered on a paper towel in the refrigerator. Before eating, rinse then hull (remove the green cap).
Strawberries can be frozen. Hull, rinse and towel dry. Remove any berries that are not in good condition (throw them in your smoothie) and only freeze the best ones. Place dry, hulled strawberries into resealable bags suitable for freezing. Strawberries can be frozen for up to a year.
Cooking with strawberries
Strawberries have many uses in cooking, from desserts to preserves. When the strawberries at their very best, try to eat them as they are, without too many additions, as they deserve to be appreciated for what they are. When they're past their prime, there are many things a cook can do with them.
Examples of suitable ways to use strawberries in cooking include:
- Marinated fruit salad
- Strawberry pie
- Strawberry cake or biscuits (cookies)
- Strawberry sweets (candies)
- Strawberry shortcake
- Strawberries sautéed or grilled
- Strawberry smoothies, milkshakes, and other blended drinks