One of my latest experiments in the garden this year is strawberries. I hadn't actually planned to grow them, but there was an area in front of the house that I had cleared of old shrubby, grubby, ugly growth, and when I spotted some really healthy looking strawberry plants at Mountain Feed and Farm Supply I knew that they had to go there.
That's 12 Seascape strawberry plants and if you look closer you might also see the newly planted Mara des Bois strawberry crowns filling in the rest of the space, each marked with a white tag (between the chile pepper plants that also found a home there). In the few days since I took the photo of the bed above the Mara des Bois have popped out a couple of new leaves on each plant.
Seascape is a day-neutral variety that was released by UC Davis back in 1990, it was touted as being vigorous, disease resistant, low chill, firm and flavorful. It is ideally suited for the coastal climate of central California and twenty years later it remains one of the best varieties on the market for both commercial growers and home gardeners. The flavor is very good when the fruit is picked fully ripe, but since it is a variety bred for large commercial growers flavor was not the number one priority.
My beginners luck with the Seascape variety has induced me to try Mara des Bois, a variety touted primarily for its flavor and texture. Mara des Bois was released by a French breeder in 1991. His goal was to develop a berry with the flavor of wild strawberries and it seems that he succeeded. Here's a quote from the website of Wicked Wilds, one of the few commercial growers of Mara des Bois strawberries in the US:
The Mara des Bois offers a rare balance of sweetness and acidity, the musk of wild strawberries and succulent, red-orange flesh that spreads across your palate like buttery ambrosia. The berries range in size from that of a chick pea to that of a walnut and each berry, regardless of size, exhibits this unique aromatic profile.There's also a short but informative article about Mara des Bois strawberries by Barbara Damrosch from The Washington Post.
Here's a photo of some more Mara des Bois baby plants that are coming along where the Meyer Lemon tree is planted. I have to keep the newly planted area protected with overturned nursery flats to keep the cats from digging and um, fertilizing . . .
In my typical backwards fashion, I started researching how to grow strawberries after I planted them. There are two basic types of strawberries. Short-day (June bearing) varieties have an early but short season, although in California's mild coastal climate they start earlier than June and have a longer season. Day-neutral varieties can produce from spring through fall, although temperatures above 85F shut down flower production so in warmer climates they produce in spring, take a summer break, and resume production in the fall. My summer temperatures rarely get above 85F and both varieties that I'm growing are day-neutral so I'm hoping for a long season.
One of the problems I had when I started researching strawberry cultivation is that generally accepted practices don't necessarily work for coastal California gardeners (like most other gardening advice). If I had planned to grow strawberries it would have been better to get my plants into the ground in November. For cold climate gardeners spring is the recommended planting time. And if I choose to grow a short-day variety it can be planted form late summer through November.
Conventional wisdom says that you should cut off the first flowers to allow the plants to develop strong roots, but the advice for here is to just let them bloom and grow. I suspect that that is because winter planting allows the plants to grow roots and foliage before the spring weather prompts flower formation. I allowed the first flowers that developed when the plants were still in their pots to bloom and produce and the plants seem to be coming along ok. I'm not getting a lot of berries yet but there do seem to be a lot of flowers developing.
Strawberry plants are susceptible to many of the same diseases as solanaceous plants so you shouldn't plant them in an area where you grew tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, or potatoes for 3 years before the strawberries go in.. (Got lucky on that one.) The plants need good drainage, I'm ok on that requirement as well. I really need to lay down some drip lines and put down some kind of mulch. Commercial growers use plastic sheeting, but that's too ugly for this high profile spot in my garden. Organic mulch provides the perfect hiding and breeding spot for chewing insects that would love to nibble on the ripening berries. Hmm, maybe I'll just lay down the drip lines and leave it at that. I have a friend who grows her strawberries without mulch and hers do just fine.
I'm growing, or trying to grow, one other variety of strawberry, Yellow Wonder. This is a different species of strawberry, Fragaria vesca, the wild strawberry or fraises des bois. It bears a very small pale yellow, nearly white, berry that is incredibly aromatic and flavorful, although not as juicy as a common strawberry. Unlike common strawberries, these little wild strawberries are easy to grow from seed and will sometime self sow in the garden. I've grown this variety once before and loved it. I couldn't find the seeds again for quite a while and then by chance saw them offered by Baker Creek in their latest catalog. So I hope I'll enjoying these sweet little berries once again. I say I hope, because you can see in the photo below that I've been neglecting my poor little plants, that's the best looking of the bunch, I think I let them dry out or get too hot.
I'm planting those in a large pot in the vegetable garden today, I hope they recover. If not, I've got more seeds to try again.