A really good or even decent strawberry needs to be slow-ripened in the sun: They are literally tiny buttons of distilled sunshine. This is why the store-bought imposters, picked while still under-ripe to maximize time on the shelf, will never pass.
Fortunately, strawberries are probably the easiest fruit crop to grow. Anyone with a small patch of sun, whether it touches down on a backyard, a front stoop or a window ledge, can grow a little taste of summer. Individual strawberry plants are generally pretty small, with shallow root systems. As a result, they're adaptable to growing in tight spaces and even smaller containers where few other fruits will thrive. I once grew a strawberry plant in a repurposed soup can. Sure, it produced only a couple of berries, but by God they were delicious little morsels - and better to have a taste of the good stuff than none at all.
Growing up in the fruit belt of Ontario, I was under the mistaken impression that all strawberries were the same: the bigger the better. But it turns out that the tiny, wild types are superior when it comes to taste. It's as if all of the flavour of a big berry is super-concentrated and then jammed into a smaller package. Wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) and their cultivated cousins, known as alpines or frais des bois, last forever in the garden too, while the gigantic hybrids (Fragaria x ananassa) tend to fizzle out and stop producing after a few years. Of the hybrids, try a day-neutral variety that will set fruit throughout the growing season ('Seascape' is one) or 'Mara des Bois' for a flavour and fragrance bred to compete with wild types. For something decorative, choose varieties that have colourful flowers - such as 'Lipstick' and 'Pink Panda' - rather than the typical white.
To get ripe berries this season, buy a hanging basket of mature plants that will be ready for picking through the summer. To grow a long-term crop, begin in the spring with mature bare rootstock or leafy plants - don't bother with seed unless you want to grow a big crop of alpines. Dig the plants in so that the crown (where the leaves meet the roots) is just above the soil line. If it's too deep, the crown will rot; if it's too high, it will dry out.
Strawberries require a bright and sunny spot with excellent drainage - they are one of a few edibles that will thrive in moderately sandy soil. In a less than sunny spot, try the 'Mignonette' variety, an alpine that turns out loads of charming, pointy little fruit set against toothy, ornamental leaves.
More important than sun, strawberries grow best when the soil is kept moist, but not soggy. Lay a thick blanket of straw mulch around the plants to moderate the soil moisture and keep weeds out. Add a little bit of compost at planting time but don't overdo it with fertilizer or you'll end up with boring, bland berries.
Expect for alpines, all strawberry plants reproduce aggressively by setting off tiny plantlets known as runners. Come fall, you can encourage runners to take root and quickly double your initial investment with a bigger crop next year. Keep your plants alive through the winter by tucking them in with a new blanket of straw. Shallow window-box plants probably won't survive, but you can transfer them to the garden or into much deeper planter boxes or plastic pots and repot next spring.
Gayla Trail's new book is Grow Great Grub: Organic Food From Small Spaces. For more gardening tips, visit www.yougrowgirl.com.
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