Strawberries are often seen as the sexist of fruits, to be popped into a lover's mouth as a prelude to all kinds of bliss.
Taste is a major factor, of course. Those who have only eaten cold-stored supermarket strawberries have paradise waiting when you slowly munch your first sun-warmed harvest. Strawberries' affinity for chocolate is another contribution to the 'sexy' stakes - dip that berry in chocolate, or rum and chocolate, before feeding it to your beloved.
Before super sweet strawberry varieties were bred in the past three or four decades, wild forest strawberries were the most fragrant, and an excellent excuse for an expedition into the woods to pick strawberries, and other delights.
Luckily strawberries are one of the easiest fruits in the world to grow. Plant them under your roses or at the front of the flower bed. Fill a large hanging basket with strawberry plants so the runners trail down, carrying loads of berries. Buy a tiered strawberry planter (either a fiberglass one or one made of rustic terracotta or glazed pottery) for your patio or doorstep. There are even hanging tiered strawberry baskets for sale, or green walls with grow lights that can be dedicated to strawberry growing so you can pluck dessert from the dining table.
It is impossible to have too many strawberry plants. If you don't get round to picking them all, the local kids and birds will discover them - and the slugs and eelworms, which can be a nasty surprise. Mulching with hair clippings will deter slugs. Pick every day, or the slugs and birds will add them to their menu. Birds will also be deterred by fruit fly netting over the beds. If strawberry-munching kids are a problem, it is a sign you need to plant more strawberries.
When I was small I used to raid our strawberry patch every afternoon after school. In return I had to hold the hose over the plants every Saturday afternoon. This is possibly the world's most boring activity, and turned me off any form of gardening for about a decade.
Strawberries can be planted at any time of the year, either potted ones, or bare rooted 'runners'. Dig a hole just wide enough to spread out the roots, so that the soil comes up to the base of the plants. The roots should point down and out, in a wide vase shape. (This may not make sense now, but it will when you have a strawberry plant in your hand.) Each hole should be just over a hand's span apart.
Strawberries grow best in full sun, with acidic soil - a pine or casuarina needle mulch is excellent but most Australian soils are acidic enough anyway - with plenty of humus and moisture. You'll need to water your strawberries unless it rains twice a week. Drip irrigation is excellent, mulch almost a necessity. Strawberry plants wither under weeds, and mulch will help stop seeds germinating and taking over
Many growers use a black plastic mulch - its heat helps give you earlier fruit in spring and later in autumn, as well as fewer weeds. But strawberries can bake under black plastic in hot summers and sometimes the fruit that is in contact with the plastic cooks before you manage to pick it, which is disappointing.
If you mulch your berries with home-made compost or lucerne hay, you may not have to feed your berries at all. Otherwise give them a scatter of blood and bone or old hen manure in winter or other organic fertiliser, spring and mid-summer. Well-fed strawberries produce more berries. Don't just give them a high nitrogen fertiliser like sulphate of ammonia, or you'll get lots of dark green leaves and few berries.
Pick off runners in summer and autumn to replant elsewhere, or you'll get masses of new plants and less fruit. Most plants are infected with virus after a few years and their production drops. When that happens haul out the plants, throw them away, and grow new ones in clean soil - or just let the old plants multiply where they are, so you still have enough even if they aren't as productive.
The best variety is the one you can get hold of - usually local garden centers sell the ones best suited to this climate. If possible, get several varieties as they will fruit at slightly different times and strawberries from spring to late autumn is an old-fashioned luxury - as is enough overripe fruit to make jam. Cambridge Vigour is one of the earliest fruiters, with a few autumn berries if you cut the plants back in January. Tioga, Torrey and Naratoga are also early varieties, worth diversifying with.
Red Gauntlet is one of the most popular strawberries. The fruit are large, though not as well-flavored as many others, and the bushes crop over a very long season. If you want just one variety, this is probably it. Narbello is another long cropper. There are also yellow strawberries, which are extremely good and an excellent contrast in a bowl with red berries, and old-fashioned fragrant wild ones, and the giant Japanese varieties, the sumo wrestlers of the berry world, which look as if they should be tasteless but are luscious - as long as they haven't been cold stored too long. Strawberries' delicate flavour and scent does not last well in cold storage, or even the fridge. If possible, eat berries that have never been chilled, but gone from backyard or farm to market and then to mouth, with no fridge in between.
My favorite berries are still eaten sun warmed and sweet, there in the garden. But if you wish to be elegant, arrange the berries on a plate around a small mountain of mascarpone that's been whipped with a little castor sugar, orange juice and either grated orange zest or Cointreau. Dip each berry it till it's snowcapped, then eat.
This week I am:
- Planting onions.
- Trying to work out where to plant the fruit trees I ordered in summer and are about arrive. (I got carried a bit away).
- Appreciating the first frost-sweet beetroot.
- Cheering the self-sown primulas in the front flower garden. It's been years since I planted any, but every year a few flowers appear.
- Snarling at the wallaby who has a few mouthfuls of my daisies every night for dessert.
- Delighting in tree dahlias, perennial and about two metres high, like hundreds of pale mauve ballerina skirts.