Strawberries, or Fragaria, are a low growing perennial (of the same family as the rose) that originated in the temperate woodlands of Europe and it is reported that they were cultivated in ancient Rome but modern cultivation started in the sixteenth century. Prized for their soft red juicy fruits, strawberries are easy to grow and hugely delicious with fresh double cream on a balmy summer evening accompanied by a glass of good Australian "Sticky" wine. (For our overseas readers a Sticky is an Australianism for botrytis affected vines that produce fruity and sweet desert wines.) Strawberries are not real berries or fruit at all but only the enlarged end of the flower stamen. They are also odd in that they hold their seeds on the outside of the skin - as opposed to most berries that have internal seeds.

Preparing to Plant:
Strawberries don't like it too hot, preferring cooler, moist climates. Plant them in springtime in a well drained and sheltered, sunny position, in a slightly acid soil (ph 5.5-6.5) preferably not where strawberries, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers or eggplants have been previously planted. Prepare a bed by digging the soil over well, removing weeds and introducing a good supply of compost or well rotted manure along with a good sprinkling of phosphorus rich fertiliser. They like a lots of nutrients, the richer the soil the bigger and tastier the fruits. Rake the bed into a round mound or a long ridge (about 50-60 cms wide) to improve the drainage.

Preparing the Plants:
You'll generally buy strawberry plants with bare roots. These roots will need to be soaked in water for an hour or two before planting and trimmed to around 10cms in length with a pair of garden scissors or secateurs.



Planting:
Dig a wide shallow hole for each plant and make a mound in the middle over which you drape the roots, taking care not to bend them. Cover the roots with soil making sure that the crown of the plant remains at ground level and firm it down before giving a good soaking watering. When you have finished planting mulch the area with straw or wood chip to help conserve moisture. N.B. crowns set too low will result in root rot, set too high the roots may dry out.

Looking After Them:
Strawberry flower...For the first six to seven weeks pinch out new flowers and runners to help he plant make good roots and leaves. After that the flowers will soon turn to compact green fruits that will grow and ripen to scarlet and then deep red. Give them plenty of water often, they need it for the fruits to set and grow, but make sure you keep the weeds at bay as they will rob the plants of both moisture and nutrients. Drip irrigation systems are particularly good for strawberries. Feed around once a month with a balanced fertiliser, either liquid, powder or granule during the fruiting season. If birds are a problem then cover the plants with a raised fine gauge netting. Keep it raised above the plants by stretching it between small stakes spread evenly throughout the strawberry patch. If you are diligent in all of the above then you'll enjoy rich, ripe strawberries all summer long - up to 6 months of fruiting is possible with some varieties.

Harvesting:
Strawberry on vine...Pick only the ripe fruits every other day and keep a small amount of stem attached. Don't try to ripen fruits on the window sill as they need the sugars produced by photosynthesis in the leaves to become really tasty. Always pick in the cool of the morning for the best tasting strawberries. Remove and destroy any fruits that appear to have disease to avoid infection of the rest.

Wintering:
Thin out matted beds in autumn and trim off half of the leaves. Strawberries are frost hardy but should be mulched with more straw to keep them warm in winter. N.B. In wet climates be sure to plant them in extremely well drained beds as botrytis fungus can be a problem.

Strawberries harvested...General:
Propagate from cutting off runners that have put down roots. Change location of your strawberry patch every three to four years as they require so much nutrition that they will drain a bed of its goodness and it will need a rest for a while to recover.

Odd Hint: Paint a few stones red and scatter in amongst the ripening plants. Birds will try to eat them and blunt their beaks in the effort and soon look elsewhere.

Even Odder Hint: Keep the weeds down amongst your strawberries by keeping Geese - they'll annoy the neighbours and might attack the postman but you'll have weed-free strawberries.