Container gardening - How to grow strawberries in your garden

Strawberries are exotic fruits, delicious, but very expensive. They are beyond the budget of ordinary people. If you like the fresh, sweet taste of strawberries why not grow them in your backyard or balcony. Strawberries are easy to grow. Just follow the guidelines listed here and begin harvesting your own strawberries.

Since they are not native to India, strawberries are considered exotic. They are of course grown abundantly in Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar, parts of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh and even in Ooty and Kodaikanal. Yet, they remain exorbitantly expensive. And when you buy them, you are not even guaranteed a fresh stock. Most boxes are a disappointment. When opened they are lined with perfectly shaped fresh fruit on the top, while the bottom is normally lined with bruised, and not so fresh strawberries. What a waste of money.

I love the juicy, sweet-tangy flavour of ripe strawberries. I think they are delicious, whether had plain or with fresh cream or covered in chocolate. I also love the slight crunch that comes with every bite of the fruit, when I chew the tiny seeds.

I was fortunate to stay in the Nilgiris, for a short duration. Well, long enough to let me try my hands at growing strawberries. Our ground floor accommodation came with a small garden in the front, and a massive back yard, that ran the full length of our government bungalow. Wellington, the place of our stay, was nestled between Ooty and Coonoor and had what our welcome message from the commandant described as salubrious climate. The weather in Wellington was conducive to many things and growing strawberries was definitely one of them.

I had always wanted to grow strawberries, since I was a child, influenced as I was, by my brother's friend's mother, who'd send us home grown strawberries, during winters. This was a time when strawberries weren't available in the Indian market, and the only other way you could have them was in jam, sold in mason jars. So, when we moved to Wellington, I learned a few tricks on how to grow strawberries, which I share here.

How to grow strawberries like a pro

There are two ways of growing strawberries. The first is from seeds and the second is through runners or stolons that strawberry plants propagate. Growing strawberry through seed requires tremendous patience, for it takes ages to grow a plant and longer for it to bud, flower and fruit. I tried both methods and came to the conclusion that the first method is not meant for me. However, you can attempt growing a plant from seed if you wish. Strawberry seeds are the dark coloured minute things that are seen on the surface of the fruit.

Strawberry plants produce shoots, called stolons. The stolons are distinct and easily recognisable as they are longer than the main plant, have a longish stem, with a crop of leaves at the end. I don't have an image to share, for who knew back then that I'd someday be writing this 'how to' article! If you have seen runners on a spider plant you'll get an idea of what stolons look like. If strawberries are grown in a container then the stolon should be planted in a separate pot, than the one the mother plant is growing in. In soil, grow them at a distance from the mother plant.

Strawberry plants can be sourced from nurseries in places where they are grown. I have seen them being sold in Mahabaleshwar and Ooty. They can cost anywhere between fifty and hundred rupees per plant, with stolon

The stolon(s) are always linked to the main plant and have 6-7 leaves on them. To grow new strawberry plants gently push the part with the leaves into the soil and cover it such that you allow the plant to grow roots. This procedure is called rooting. Use a mix of compost and cocopeat in the container. Also select a small container, because you will later need to transplant the plant.

The stolon will within a couple of weeks take root, and begin to sprout fresh leaves and spreading like the mother plant. This is when you separate it from the mother plant, by snipping off the connecting stem.

Transplant and soil

Once the plant begins to grow well and there are no signs of distress it is time to shift it into a larger container. Prepare the container with a potting mix that does not retain water. I suggest a potting mix consisting of compost, cocopeat, soil, river sand in a 3:3:2:1 ratio.

Select containers with a depth of about six inches. Space the plants if using one large container, as I did.

After care

Strawberry plants require direct sunlight. If you are growing them in your balcony, ensure that it receives at least a few hours of direct sunlight. Strawberry plants do not like too much water, you will need to carefully ration the water.

The stolon will continue to receive nourishment from the mother plant as long as it is attached to it. As it takes roots it will also begin to draw nutrition from the soil. A plant with many stolon shoots will gradually lose its nutrients as the shoots will continue to leach nutrients of it. So, it is best to allow the stolons to remain attached to the mother plant for no more than two weeks. Once they take root, snip off the connection. If this is not done you might lose the mother plant.

It is time to act if you notice the leaves on the mother plant changing colour. If the leaves begin to turn brown, see it as a distress signal. You can apply compost or an organic fertiliser to the plant to provide it nourishment.

Harvesting strawberries

Strawberry plants begin to bud and flower as the temperature begins to drop. That would be around October if you are living in the plains. Strawberry flowers are white in colour and small in size. The flowering and fruiting continues until end February, early March. In colder climates, like in Mahabaleshwar or Ooty, this pattern is altered.

The plants go through a rest period during the rest of the year. This is the time when it produces stolons. Begin rooting them for a new harvest. Also, remember to feed the plants, periodically. Every two weeks is a pattern I followed. I used compost and an organic feed sourced from a tea/coffee plantation. It was made using products from cows. I applied it to my entire garden. I fought pests by spraying a light mix of detergent and water on the plants, once every twenty days.

You can also order strawberry plants online. Remember to tend to them regularly. They are delicate plants but flourish when properly cared for. You can begin harvesting your own organic strawberries in a container garden. When we moved to Delhi I had the plants transported along with my luggage - atop the driver's cabin. Unfortunately, the plants did not survive the sudden climate change that they were subjected to. All my efforts to save them were in vain. However, with a little care, you can begin harvesting your own organic strawberries in a container garden. Good luck!

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