There are many reasons to make strawberries a part of the design for your permaculture plot. Not only do they taste great – even when eaten straight from the plant – they contain lots of vitamins and minerals so are good for you to. They are adaptable plants, able to grow in most conditions as long as they get lots of sunshine, and can be grown in baskets and containers by those short on space. Strawberry plants are also perennial, so you get annual crops from the same plants over several years.
Strawberries are cultivated from seedlings, so source an organic supplier. You may be able to source seedlings from a fellow gardener’s plants, but these will not be as strong as newly grown seedlings, which are preferable if you are establishing a perennial patch. Most species can adapt to a variety f climates and condition, but perhaps ask local growers which they have had the most success with. Popular varieties include Redchief, which is renowned for its resistance to disease, Honeyoye, which are good at overwintering and producing naturally sweet berries, and Earligrow, which offers one of the earliest harvests.
Strawberry plants like lots of full sunlight. If temperatures are very high during the spring and summer growing season, consider planting so the plants receive partial shade at the hottest times of the day to prevent the plants drying out. You also need to ensure the plants are in a well-ventilated position, to try and prevent fungal spores settling on the plants, as strawberries are particularly susceptible to mold.
Strawberries prefer soil that is well drained and is rich in organic matter. When preparing the soil in your garden bed for your strawberry plants, add lots of organic compost or manure to ensure nutrient-rich humus. If you have particularly alkaline soil, use coffee grounds in the compost to bring down the pH, as strawberries prefer a slightly acid soil.
Plant the seedlings so that the crown of the rootstock is at the soil surface level. This will help it get the relatively large amount of water it needs without the roots rotting. Strawberry plants typically spread out quite a lot, so give each a good 30 centimeters of space. But because in permaculture design you seek to maximize the yield of the plot, consider at least variegated planting so not too much earth is left bare.
Place a net over the plants to protect them from birds and squirrels.
As with most of the plants in a permaculture plot, judicious use of companion planting can help strawberries grow and produce good crops. One of the best companion plants for strawberries is the culinary herb borage, which aids the strawberry plants by attracting lots of beneficial insects. The borage flowers attract lots of pollinating insects, which in turn draw in insects that prey upon them, such as predatory wasps. These predators prey on insects that can damage the strawberry plants. Borage also adds trace minerals to the soil, which can assist strawberry plant growth, and some gardeners believe that the proximity of borage actually improves the flavor of their strawberry crop. Other candidates for companion planting include beans and lupin which, being legumes, help fix nitrogen in the soil, and caraway which attracts the parasitic wasps that predate insects damaging to the strawberries. Plants that are not suitable for companion planting with strawberries include those in the cabbage family, which inhibit growth by competing for nutrients, and species that are susceptible to the fungus verticillium, such as tomatoes, eggplant, okra and potatoes. Even planting strawberries in soil that has hosted such species in the previous five years can leave them susceptible to infection.
Mulch helps almost any plant. It helps the soil retain moisture, protects it from erosion by wind and rain, and provides a slow release of nutrients (as long as the mulch is organic in nature). It is particularly useful for strawberries as mulch helps to prevent fungal growth, which can easily infect strawberry plants. Pine needles are arguably the best mulch for strawberries as they allow lots of water percolation and also keep the soil slightly acid, which strawberry plants prefer. However, straw is commonly used as well.
Strawberry plants are quite moisture-hungry plants. This is one of the main reasons to mulch the ground around them – to retain moisture in the soil – but they will also need regular irrigation. However, they do not like getting their leaves wet, so either water carefully at ground level or consider instituting a drop irrigation system to target water at the roots.
If left to their own devices, strawberry plants can propagate rapidly and even by the second year will have crowded the garden bed to such an extent that too many plants are competing for too few nutrients, resulting in diminished crops. You can prevent this by taking off the runners – the spindly branches the strawberry plant send out from the main stem to establish new plants nearby (strawberries do not need pollination; they propagate themselves) – when they appear. However, if you want to renew your strawberry patch you can use these runners to perpetuate the crop. When the runners appear choose five or less to remain and remove the others (too many will be problematic as stated above). Peg them down so they do not extend too far and begin to establish themselves in the soil. Once the new plants appear, cut from the main plant and leave to grow or transplant to another area of your bed as desired.
The fruit is ready to harvest when it is a uniform red color, with no areas of white or green remaining. The exact shade of red will depend upon the variety you grow. Ripe fruit quickly goes rotten on the branch, so during the ripening season, check everyday for suitability. If you lightly touch a fruit and it comes off, chances are the crop is about ready. Harvest in dry conditions and handle with care to avoid bruising the fruit. Eat fresh the same day as harvesting as the fruit spoils quickly, or if preserving, do so on the same day to retain the most flavour.