Whiling away an hour — or four — in exploring, in minute detail, all the wonderful plants on offer in your local nurseries is an inspiring way to spend a Sunday afternoon and, especially if you indulge in this today, you might just be tempted to take home asome strawberry plants which, as long as proper care is given, are a good investment.
People are often more than a little surprised to learn that strawberries can do incredibly well here — even in Karachi and its immediate surrounds — but, this must be stressed, they do need an extra generous amount of tender loving care if they are to flourish and provide you with the luscious fruit for which they are famous.
Strawberry plants are perfectly suited to cultivation in prepared garden beds or in pots / containers — one plant per 10-inch clay pot — and trailing varieties are wonderful for hanging baskets over the cooler months. However, these will need to be transplanted to cooler quarters — hanging baskets dry out rapidly in the late spring / summer / early autumn heat — as soon as temperatures begin to climb.
A fruit of the cooler climes, strawberries can be grown in plains and coastal areas as well; they just need extra care
Nurseries usually sell what are technically known as ‘runners’: these are baby strawberry plants which have grown on longish stems sent out by the mother plant once it has finished fruiting and, once this baby plant is developed enough to survive alone, it is snipped off from its parent and potted up to grow on alone.
If highly developed and if grown in top class conditions, runners will fruit in their first spring but rarely crop to their full potential until the following season when, in their determination to perpetuate the species, they will send out lots of new runners of their own. A strawberry plant may produce runners in its first season but, quite often, these are not really strong enough to warrant saving as they then have a tendency to produce inferior plants. The second or third year plants make the best and strongest runners with heavy fruiting potential.
Strawberry plants need very rich, well-drained soil / compost if they are to thrive. If growing them directly in the ground, prepare the soil — preferably at least two weeks in advance of planting — by mixing in lots and lots of preferably home-made, organic compost / old, well-rotted, organic manure and, if the soil has a tendency to retain too much water, a helping of river sand (not salty sea sand) to aid drainage. If you feel that drainage may still be an issue, then grow the strawberries in slightly raised beds or stick to pot cultivation, using the same basic soil mix. In the ground, plants should be spaced at 12 – 15 inches apart, in rows which are also 12 – 15 inches apart.
It is essential, when planting, that the crowns — this is the central part of the plant from which the stems grow — are kept at ground level, neither below nor above. If crowns have soil on them, they rot away and if they are too high above the ground surface then root problems occur.
They need plenty of sunshine over the winter months and on into early spring but must then have a goodly amount of shade for the rest of the year as, don’t forget, they originate from much cooler climes than those of the Pakistani plains and coastal belt. You can shade net the plants where they are or move them to a different location when needed.
Strawberry plants need plenty of water when in full growth, flowering and on through the fruiting stage. They generally bear their delicious fruit from mid-February until the end of April in the plains / coastal belt and from May until the end of August at higher elevations.
The plants must be kept free of weeds and mulched, between, around and underneath the leaves but not over the crown, with ‘bhoosa’ to keep the fruit from coming into direct contact with the soil. This mulch keeps the fruit clean and helps prevent it from rotting. Some growers prefer to use plastic sheeting rather than actual mulch. Mulch does, unfortunately, provide a safe hiding place for slugs and snails, etc., so it pays to perform a bug search every two to three days, picking out and sensibly disposing of any you happen to find.
Strawberry plants are at their best between the ages of 18 – 36 months after which it makes sense to replace them with new plants grown from the runners they have produced over this time.
As previously mentioned, the mother plants send out runners once fruiting is finished for the season. One plant may send out lots of runners but it is best to restrict them to no more than three runners per plant, snipping off any others as soon as they begin to form. If you are greedy and leave more, the resultant runners will be of inferior quality and you certainly do not want that!
Strawberries can also be grown from seed but, as seed needs to be sown in late spring when temperatures are heading for high in the plains / coastal belt, this is best left for growers in the hills and mountains which is where, not surprisingly, the vast majority of the runners currently being sold in nurseries, happen to originate with Swat being a primary source.
Tip: One or two strawberry plants are just not enough: go for one to two dozen and, with care, you will be able to feast!
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Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 20th, 2015