Garden Gossip

with Ted Smith

How many times have you been at the grocery store and seen the liter boxes of giant crimson strawberries? They look so good that it’s nearly impossible to resist. Once you get them home, however, it’s usually time for a little disappointment. The anticipation of biting into that first luscious ruby fruit is seldom lived up to by the actual experience. Commercial strawberries that have been grown and picked thousands of kilometers away before being wrapped in plastic and shipped for days are understandably a little on the worn-out side by the time they reach us. A large part of the problem is that the natural sugars in strawberries begin converting to starches as soon as the fruit is picked. This leads supermarket berries to display an often tart flavour in place of the incredible sweetness one experiences with a fresh berry picked right in your own back yard. With just a small investment, and a little bit of effort, you can go into your own garden and pick a fruit that literally bursts with flavour as you sink your teeth into it. Once you’ve tasted a naturally ripened and sun kissed strawberry, those flavourless impostors will never again seem quite so alluring.

The strawberries (Fragaria sp.) have a long history that involves many different cultures around the world. The ancient Roman poets often referred to strawberries in their writing but this was a much different fruit than what we know today. Ancient European strawberries were small, tough and low on flavour. At that, they were still widely recognized, and used, for their medicinal properties. In North America, a small hardy strawberry was a part of folklore and mythology long before the first Europeans arrived. The native North American strawberry, while small, was juicy and flavourful. Cherokee folklore contains an account of strawberries being responsible for settling a horrible fight between the first man and the first woman. Strawberries came to represent human harmony within their verbal history. An even larger fruited strawberry enjoyed the moderate coastal weather of Chile where it was cultivated by indigenous people for as long as memory goes back.

In Europe, particularly France, wild woodland strawberries were brought into cultivation as early as the 1300s. Slow progress was made with regards to the flavour and palatability of this fruit as breeding crept along. It wasn’t until explorers returned from the Americas with both the North American strawberry and the South American strawberry that real progress began to happen. Hybridization between the two resulted in the size of the South American fruit being combined with the hardiness and flavour of its North American cousin. The result, Fragaria ananassa, is the starting point of all modern commercial strawberry varieties. In 1834 the first named variety, Hovey, was introduced to the agricultural community, and breeding has snowballed from there. The varieties of strawberry available to today’s grower are mind boggling.

As with most plants we look at in Garden Gossip, strawberry plants come with many options and decisions to be made by the gardener. You can start many strawberry cultivars from seed although it is most common for people to buy plants which are shipped in a nearly dormant state. You also have the option of “borrowing” plants from a friend’s garden once their plants begin producing runners with daughter plants on the end of them. 

Interestingly, you also have plenty of options with regard to colour. While most strawberries do come in shades of red, white and yellow fruit are also commonly grown. One old variety that has enjoyed a recent resurgence of popularity is the so called pine berry which has large white fruit studded with bright red seeds. The flowers can be equally diverse and colourful ranging from pristine white to deep scarlet. The red and pink flowered strawberries are often grown in ornamental plantings.

Strawberries also offer different harvest possibilities. Most commonly available are the June bearing plants whose name is pretty self descriptive. Beyond this, you can expand your harvest options by growing everbearers whose flower and fruit are stimulated by the longest days of summer. These plants continue to produce fruit as the days diminish in length up until frost. For an even longer harvest, a group of strawberries known as day neutrals has also been developed. These particular plants don’t care what time of summer it is or how long the days are, they simply want to produce fruit continuously.

Hopefully I have the attention of the neophyte strawberry growers out there. Next week we’ll get down to the nitty gritty and look at the best and easiest way to fill your bowls with a bountiful harvest.