Chillies, beans and tomatoes on potted plants? Nothing new about that. A lot of urban gardeners in India grow these kitchen vegetables on their balconies or terraces — but how about strawberries? If you think they are too exotic or too tough to grow at home, think again!
Incredibly easy to cultivate, strawberry plants have a compact and quick-growing habit. As such, they can be grown almost anywhere – in terracotta pots, plastic containers or hanging baskets.
The vitamin C-rich fruit is also packed with flavonoids, anti-oxidants and phytonutrients that offer a wealth of health benefits.
Furthermore, homegrown strawberries are organic, taste far better than store-bought ones and can save you some serious money by not having to pay supermarket prices — on an average, a box of strawberries in the market costs between 40-60 bucks, and the ones at the bottom are often small, pale and squished.
Here’s a simple step-by-step guide that’ll help you successfully grow strawberries at home.
1. Decide where you’ll grow your strawberries
As mentioned earlier, strawberries can be grown in a container on your balcony, terrace or window box. If your horizontal space is limited, consider growing strawberries in a hanging basket or stacked planter —this will allow you to take advantage of vertical growing space.
Do note that a sunny spot outside your home is the best place to grow strawberries, though you can get a slightly lower harvest with less than a half day of direct sunlight. Avoid windy sites which will prevent pollinating insects from reaching the flowers.
Tip: For shadier spots, try planting Alpine strawberries (tougher to source but available in select online nurseries) which take more care and patience but produce fruit that is just as delicious.
2. Reuse and recycle while choosing containers
At the outset, you don’t need to invest in fancy containers or earthen pots. You can even make use of 2-litre plastic bottles, wooden crates and re-purposed buckets to grow strawberries. However, whether you choose a container made of clay, plastic, wood, or other material, make sure it has a soil depth of at least 12-14 inches to give the plants’ root systems space to grow.
How many plants you can fit in will depend upon the width of the container, since you should space plants about 10-12 inches apart to allow them to spread horizontally.
Tip: There are a number of distinct advantages to growing strawberries in tubs or buckets of any kind. Plants can be moved to track the sun (allowing them to enjoy more light than they might otherwise) or lifted off the ground to avoid the interest of slugs!
3. Get pot-grown plants or ‘runners’ of the right variety
Strawberry plants grow from ‘runners’ (stems with buds that develop into new plants) that can be purchased from nurseries.
There are two main kinds of strawberries available: ‘June-bearing’ plants that will bear fruit in spring or early summer, and ‘Ever-bearing’ varieties that can be harvested from early summer right up until early autumn. While June-bearing varieties can take up to a year to establish, ever-bearing plants can give you fruit the very first year and may allow you to extend your harvest over a period of weeks or months.
Do note that there are many varieties within each grouping of strawberries and your local nursery should be able to recommend some good ones for the climate in your area.
Tip: It is best to buy the runners just before you intend to plant them into the ground or container. Leaving them for too long in their store-bought pots can cause them to become root-bound and unhealthy, preventing them from growing well when replanted.
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4. Prepare a soil that will make your strawberries happy
Strawberries like rich, loamy soil that drains well. Start with what you have and add plenty of organic matter (such as compost, shredded bark or peat moss) as well as some sand or grit. Most potting soil mixes sold at nurseries will be sufficient. Ensure that the soil is free of weed roots and that the container has drainage holes in the bottom.
Tip: If growing in a hanging basket, line the basket with sphagnum moss before putting soil to retain moisture for the plants. Sphagnum moss will also allow for the plant to grow out the sides of the pot, which looks nice.
5. Plant it right
Set plants into the soil, ensuring that each crown (where the leaves emerge) sits just above the surface and spaced 10-12 inches apart – this is closer than they would be in the ground and will make it easier to water them.
Firm the plants in and water to settle the soil around the roots. Mulch after planting (with dry leaves) to reduce a loss of water due to evaporation and provide food for beneficial soil microbes. Runners can look quite severe with their minimal top growth and often less-than-plump roots. This is normal, so worry not!
Tip: While potted strawberries can be planted any time of the year, it is best to plant them in spring.
6. Super simple maintenance
To encourage flowering, feed with all-natural homemade fertilizers ( a weekly handful dose of leftover filter coffee grounds can work wonders) and water regularly. However, don’t overdo the water — the shallow roots need water in hot weather but don’t like being soggy. Soon you’ll see tiny green strawberries, which shows that the fruit has ‘set’!
Strawberries flower and fruit in the cool months, around October to February. It is important that you take good care of your plants during summer.
Do note that strawberry plants continue to be productive for at least 2-3 years but will need to be replaced thereafter. To renovate June-bearing plants for next year, trim off their old leaves, making sure not to damage the centre stalk (crown) of the plant. Ever-bearers do not need this trimming.
Tip: Tuck some straw under the fruits to keep them clean and dry, and to discourage slugs and snails. Wet fruit rots very easily.
7. Harvesting Happiness
Pick strawberries when they are bright red all over, ideally during the warmest part of the day because this is when they are at their tastiest. Eat them as soon as possible or transform them into scrumptious preserves.
Also, after fruiting, cut back the foliage to leave just the central, young leaves intact. Runners should be removed (unless you want to propagate new plants) to ensure plants bulk out again — the more runners a single mother plant has, the more resource/nutrition will drain off from the mother plant.
Tip: Always pick so that the stem is left intact.