Monday, June 6, 2011

Strawberry Fields In A Jam

All through the sixties and seventies, and for some unfortunates, the eighties too -  a summer holiday for the average juvenile Dub (person from Dublin, Ireland to you non Irish out there) meant two weeks of enclosed confinement in a Wexford caravan with rain scudding off the outsides and squabbling siblings and Scrabble tiles bouncing off the insides. When the weather permitted there were occasional forays to a beach to digest warm red lemonade and “hang sangwiches” containing fake ham (haslett anyone?) and real sand.

Irish Holidays 1400AD - 1982AD
But one of the real treats of going on holiday came on the way home -  from the strawberry tables laid out on the road sides by growers in the sunny south east. In the age before nintendo other things were sacred. Pester you parents, make them pull in and buy and then stuff yourselves with the world’s most delicious fruit. Then spend the rest of the trip home scratching hive eruptions and asking "are we there yet?."

The fire engine red hue of a ripe strawberry is nature’s road sign to come and tuck in. And, as any grower of strawberries knows only too well, nature’s lunch invitation runs far and wide –  to grow them successfully you’ll need to fend off over 200 different types of strawberry loving beings including rodents, birds, thrips, mites, weevils, aphids, wasps, slugs, snails, caterpillars and other people’s kids (except for the one that's violently allergic).

Cultivated strawberries are a relative newcomer to our gardens - in centuries past througout most of Ireland you could simply wander out into the woods and pick all you wanted. Then along came the Brits in the 18th Century to take our forests home to make battleships for world domination. And so woodland strawberries along with woodlands, became rare. This meant we brought them home when we found them, planted them in the garden and mulched and marked the berries with straw – thus giving them their name. Hayberries (only joking)
This year my strawberry plants are in a raised bed and as the fruit comes on I’ll be framing some netting over them to stop the birds. I’ve already covered the surface with coffee grounds to help keep the slugs and snails off them. The rough timber surface also helps to deter them. There’s plenty of manure around them because when they’re fruiting they do feed as well as drink heavily. As a woodland plant, they prefer slightly acidic ground.
Wexberries...the very bext

Later that same century, the much larger garden strawberry we are familiar with today was created by crossing two imported varieties from the north and south Americas. Unfortunately few foods have been as denigrated by the mainstream supermarket chain through the past three decades as the beloved strawberry. The store bought berry has been designed for longevity, durability in transport and to be produced at bargain bucket prices rather than taste, nutrition and texture. The muscular fragaria you find down at your local supermarket is an irradiated water pustule which will last forever in your fridge. Put one in and keeping looking over the months.

Which is why there’s a world of difference today between the taste of a modern supermarket grown strawberry and a homegrown one. Especially a heritage one. So if you haven’t already got your strawberries in – mine are already starting to flower – then there’s still time to grab a few trayloads from the garden centre.

A hive outbreak yesterday
Different varieties fruit at different times running from June (Emily, Honeoye and Elsanta) through July (Elsanta, Pegasus, Symphony and Florence) to early August (Sophie). The ideal is to get an early and a late version on the go at once to stretch out your season. If you’re tempted to try growing “wild” strawberries (the old native woodland types),  do bear in mind that while the flavour is the best you’ll taste, they’re tiny – about the size of a tall jelly tot,  often chewy and you’ll never get enough of them to fill a desert bowl.

The plants don’t produce well in year one but do best in their second and third years. So give them a chance (I did in my first year, vow in print, never to grow strawberries again) They do reproduce quickly by throwing out runners after they fruit. So ground yourself a few runners from each plant by pinning the “bend” into a pot of compost or soil and once they’ve rooted and produced three or four leaves, cut the stalk to the main plant and now you have another plant.  While fruiting however they need to be watered carefully and well fed. Otherwise plants will keep in any old conditions and are quite resistant to a bit of heavy frost and snow. Some growers even swear that they fruit better because of it.

When they’re fruiting you can save space by planting them in multi pocketed upright containers, in hanging baskets or in cut pockets in wall mounted grow bags – but you do need to ensure that they’re kept well watered once they start flowering. Water continuation is crucial. Also make sure they go in the sunniest position possible – it’s the sun that makes that flavour.

There is a multi pocketed planter in there somewhere..
 If you’ve kept them in containers through the year do go through the roots and the soil for vine weevils, fat white grubs whose parent is that familiar salt and pepper coloured beetle you often see poking around patio containers. Birds are the biggest fans of fresh strawberries and even before they’re ripened, delinquent magpies will pull off the green berries just for something to do. Plastic netting is dirt cheap and should be framed rather than just thrown on.

I hang old unwanted cd's nearby to keep the birds off. In his day grandfather used to deploy shards of old mirrors to keep the birds off his fruit. The resulting reflections unnerve them. Birds hate mirrors.  

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