Tips on how to grow strawberries in a pot or container, especially if you have a small garden or balcony garden. Perfect for city or urban gardeners!
Strawberries would have to be the most rewarding plant in my kitchen garden. Not only do I plant them for their deliciously sweet fruit, but I love nothing more than watching the look of wonderment on my son’s face as he devours them and smears his face with their juicy sweetness.
I grow my strawberries in window box containers around the edge of my kitchen balcony where they get full sun for nearly most of the day. I water them at least once a day when the weather is warm, but I mostly ignore them and let the rain take care of any watering requirements. I may have fertilised them with tomato food once or twice in previous summers, but since the arrival of our two kids, I’m afraid I have been too busy feeding them to care about feeding other living organisms.
This also means that, in winter, the plants are completely neglected and exposed to the wind and snow. In the last two winters, I didn’t even bother to cut back the plants (although it is desirable if you want tidy-looking plants). It’s just as well that strawberries are forgiving because they keep coming back to life after even the most harsh and negligent snowy winters.
Once the strawberries are ripe and deliciously red, I remove them from the plant to encourage more fruit to develop. Lately, I have been in competition with the birds who like to swoop in once the strawberries are at their peak of ripeness, so a bit of netting has been necessary to avoid any disappointment on my son’s part. Incidentally, the netting is also great for keeping his impatient little hands off the unripe berries when I am not looking.
I love growing the Mara des Bois variety; they produce the most gorgeously sweet and plump berries, and they keep on bearing fruit throughout the summer. Alexandria, or other varieties of wild strawberries, are also great to grow for their concentrated berry taste and which are also ever-bearing.
Not all strawberry plants fruit continuously throughout the summer, though. Some varieties produce fruit just once, which are often quite intense in flavour, and then chill out until the following year.
Tips for growing strawberries in pots or containers
* Plant the strawberry plants ideally in mid-spring around May so that they will fruit during the summer. However, depending on the size of your strawberry plants, you can still plant them in early summer for a limited crop towards the end of the season.
* Strawberries can be planted relatively close together in a container as they don’t tend to grow too wide. But depending on the size of the plants, a good rule of thumb is to space them about 20cm apart.
* When planting, make sure that the crown of the plant is above the soil. Otherwise, the plant may rot if the crown is covered, or dry out if the crown is too exposed.
* Plant the strawberries with fresh new soil. If you are using soil which has been previously used for other plants, there is a risk that these plants have already depleted the soil of nutrients and/or contaminated the soil with bacteria, either of which will not be good for your strawberries in the area where you live.
* Remove weeds from the container regularly so that they don’t take over or destroy your strawberry plants.
* Strawberry plants should be watered at least once a day during warm weather, and especially when they are fruiting. The rule of thumb is to simply ensure that the soil remains moist.
* Remove the strawberries once they have ripened, and also remove any fruits which are rotten. The more strawberries you harvest, the more strawberries the plants will produce.
* The flavour of any fruit, vegetable or herb is greatly influenced by how much sun it receives. I find that strawberry plants which receive a lot of direct sun during the day produce the sweetest fruit; those grown in a shady spot are likely to be more sour.
* Birds love feasting on your ripe strawberries when you are not watching, so some netting is a good idea if you are at risk. Stephanie Alexander, in The Kitchen Garden Companion, suggests inserting a few bamboo skewers in the soil among the plants to discourage the birds from coming too close, and I have found this to be effective most of the time; the net is obviously a safer bet.
* If you are unlucky, your strawberry plants might attract the wrong type of insects. Growing sunflowers nearby can be helpful as they attract beneficial insects which, in turn, will attack any aphids or spider mites that can infest a strawberry crop. I got this tip, also from Stephanie Alexander’s The Kitchen Garden Companion, as my kaffir lime tree was under attack from some unwanted insects.
* Once summer has come to an end, the plants will stop producing fruit and the leaves will eventually turn brown and yellow. Cut the plants back to about 5cm to 10cm above the crown (the centre of the plant where the new leaves grow) to keep the plant looking tidy. I suppose you should still water the plants regularly over the winter; my containers are fully exposed, so I leave it to Mother Nature to water my plants throughout autumn and winter. To that end, I don’t even provide my plants with any protection against the snow. Every year, I am convinced that I have killed my strawberries (and other plants) from intentional neglect, so I am always surprised when I start to see new shoots in the early spring. Having said all of this, my “tough love” approach to growing strawberries may only apply to the winter-hardy varieties. Check with your local nursery for advice on how to care for, and over-winter, your strawberries in the area where you live.
* Strawberries should last for a few years in the same container before you will have to replace them.
* You can make new strawberry plants if yours has produced some runners (i.e. long stems with baby plants attached at the end). Simply pin down the baby plants into the soil until they start to establish roots before cutting them off and planting them as new plants. Any runners which you don’t need should be cut off close to the main plant. Note that not all strawberry plants produce runners, such as the alpine and woodland varieties.