Getting a head start: strawberries for winter planting
Certain breeds can be surprisingly hardy- learn how you can grow delicious berries through the winter
Autumn may have just passed, but if you’re finding the prospect of a slow winter is getting you restless, why not consider putting in some winter strawberries?
Strawberries are a versatile and hardy crop, beloved as much for their undemanding growth as their deliciously sweet fruit crop. Its varieties are uniquely suited to careful winter planting, unlike most fruits, which struggle with cold weather. With the right preparation you can prepare a springtime crop that will mark the beginning of the warmer months with a burst delicious Summer-y sweetness! Amazingly, winter strawberries can be planted out immediately- even from seed. However there are steps you need to take to protect them from the weather, as well as steps you may want to take to improve growth in the run up to summer.
Planting your winter strawberries isn’t a difficult proposition in itself, however there are always ways to improve growth later on that you should consider when making your planting plan.
Strawberry pre-planting checklist:
- Are you using containers or borders?
Strawberries are one of the most versatile plants available for container planting. Famously adaptable and able to grow in even the smallest (and most unusual!) containers, whether in pots, suspended from the roof, in old footwear or in even more bizarre adapted holders, the big thing at the moment is recycling (or ‘up-cycling’) new strawberry containers. Whether your plan is to repurpose belongings to planters, or more conventional beds, there’s no reason your strawberries can’t thrive. Yet be aware of some of the soil-management steps necessary to help your strawberries prosper once the weather warms up and growing can begin in earnest.
- Careful of your soil:
Strawberries might be undemanding plants, but there are some basic initial steps that could save you from disappointment. Soil can harbour diseases & spores from previous diseased crops- in the case of strawberries you shouldn’t plant in soil used previously for potatoes, chrysanthemums, or tomatoes. These can all carry a disease called verticillium wilt, a fungal infection that affects many different plants and could harm your strawberries if spores remain in the soil. If in doubt, dig out the soil and dispose of it (remember: never add potentially diseased soil or plant material to your compost bin!) When packing your containers with soil, remember to pick out any stones, weeds or debris that you find, and always leave plenty of room beneath the root system for drainage, and on the surface for mulching. If planting from seed, use a mix of seed compost and topsoil, or if planting ready-grown, use high fertility mixes such as manure, along with the right topsoil for a slightly acid blend (see below).
- Check your soil pH
Your plants’ success will come from the soil it’s planted in. Anything you can do with the soil to help them thrive is important, so whether you’re planting into new soil or not, it’s worth researching the options. The first thing to check is pH- strawberries, though durable for a fruit plant, prefer very slightly acidic soil (about 5.5-6.5) so if your pH testing kit shows slightly alkaline soil it may be worth adding a small amount of ericaceous compost to condition the soil. It’s also suggested to mulch with pine needles (also called pine straw), which not only deters pests (more on this below) but has the added effect of adding acidity to the soil beneath- though some gardeners dispute this. Once planted, many gardeners also recommend potash, or tomato feed, to boost growth as a fertiliser tailored toward acid-loving plants.
- Add soil improvers
In addition to the pH of your soil, there are a lot of things you can do to boost your plants. The window of time just after planting is crucial to determining the prospects of your strawberries, as this is the time roots are formed. Developing an extensive and healthy root system is vital to ensuring your strawberry plants yield well, as the more nutrients they can absorb to grow large, healthy fruit. Bone meal and other, strawberry-specific fertilisers can be added to the soil, to a depth of around 30cm (the maximum root depth of average strawberry plants).
- Cover your plants
Once planted in lovely rich, fertile soil, you know your plants are getting the best start in life. However there are things you still need to do. Even planted nicely under the soil, it’s still too cold for winter strawberries to survive without help. Cover your plants securely with a cloche or polythene tunnel, to keep them warm in the winter frosts. If using containers, it’s also worth considering the positioning of your plants- they need plenty of light to keep warm. If it gets very cold, it could be worth keeping your containers indoors- for instance during snow. That said, plants are tough and as long as the plant itself isn’t subjected to frosts (which can harm the ‘flesh’ of the plant) chilly soil won’t do much worse than slowing growth.
- Mulch & cover
Strawberry fruit are a fragile crop. As mentioned previously mulching your plants is essential, and plenty of options exist to do this job. It’s also important that as the weather warms you take steps to protect your winter strawberries from spring pests. Both these procedures are essential to protect your fruit, but for different reasons. Mulching protects the fruit from moisture in the soil, which can rot them, while covering with netting protects them from hungry birds (humans aren’t the only ones who love the taste of strawberries!). Strawberries should be treated carefully, and the name ‘strawberry’ comes from the straw traditionally laid down as mulch to keep these delicate fruit from touching the soggy ground. Use netting on bamboo to keep those pesky birds away from your fruit (though a bird-feeder is a great way to help our feathered friends stay happy without risking your crops!).
- Water carefully
The fruit and leaves on your plants are delicate, and need protecting from damage. Water and fertilisers can hard your leaves, by rotting them or scorching them (water can magnify the sun’s heat), so once carefully mulched, either with straw, pine straw or plastic sheeting, you need to make sure you’re watering only around the base of the plant, avoiding the leaves and fruit as much as possible.
Strawberries are a great favourite in gardens of all shapes and sizes, and a popular way of introducing children to gardening, so hopefully our guide has helped inform your decisions to and leads to your garden producing some strawberries of your own! Remember to check out our shop for any soil improvers you need to help all your planting projects thrive!