Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

When Smaller is Better

If you’ve ever picked one, you know that nothing can compare with the flavor of a fresh strawberry. But growing strawberries in your backyard can be daunting. First, it requires large amounts of sunny space  — at least one foot between plants, and three between rows. You’ll have to weed or mulch them, or risk missing the fruit for the weeds. Then you’ll have to remove all flower buds to defer fruit the first year– allowing plants to get established. In fruiting years, you must cover the entire patch, or birds will beat you to most of your crop. Then, standard strawberries should be mulched for winter, and after the first picking-season, renovated. A well-maintained strawberry bed lasts 3-5 years at best.

But there is another way. Although they might not result in gallons of strawberry jam, smaller fruited strawberries– like alpines– provide delicious fruit almost immediately after planting, and require infinitely less space. I’ve had three planted in a 12-inch pot for years. Their petite dimensions also make alpines perfect for edging ornamental beds and potagers. While the fruit are bite size, they’re packed with flavor. And I haven’t discovered one alpine grower who’s had problems with birds. (I had trouble with a chipmunk once, who beat me to every single berry as soon as it turned red. Fortunately, chipmunks in my present neighborhood have different preferences.) These strawberries are also perennial—those three in the 12-inch pot? I’ve had them for five years now, and all I do for the winter is move the pot into the garage—really. (Zone 5)

My own alpine “patch” came from seed. The excellent ‘Alexandria’ offered by Johnny’s Selected Seeds is  $2.95 for a packet of 100 seeds. Also grown from seed are these interesting ones offered as plants by Oikos Tree Crops: strains of Fragaria virginiana—our native woodland strawberry—producing delicious small fruit, ‘Intensity’ a Fragaria vesca selection with bigger berries that tolerates light shade. And then the European woodland strawberry, Fragaria moschata, which produces ½” fruit with intense wild strawberry flavor. Plants are $4 each, less in greater quantity. Recently, Nourse Farms –an excellent source for regular strawberries also–introduced a patented everbearer, ‘Mara des Bois’ which I’m tempted to try. This French-bred variety produces small to medium fruit, and Nourse claims their flavor and fragrance is superior to any– 25 plants for $21.80.

Perhaps as June thoughts turn to shortcake and jam, I’ve tempted you to grow a berry or two yourself.