There is nothing more delicious than eating homegrown strawberries. They taste so much better, can crop for weeks and are incredibly easy to grow.
Strawberries, or ‘Fragaria x Ananassa’ as they are botanically named, are perennial plants that usually crop well for 3 or 4 years – after which fruiting diminishes and the plants need replacing.
Instead of buying new plants every few years, new plants can be propagated from the old plants by taking runners.
Propagation can seem rather complicated and daunting, but don’t let this put you off. This guide will cover how to grow and care for strawberry plants and how to use runners to grow new plants for free.
Growing strawberry plants
There are several different types of strawberries that you can grow here in the UK.
The most common strawberries grown at home, which we’ll focus on, are summer fruiting varieties, that can fruit in either early, mid or late season.
If you have room for a mixture of all three then you could be picking strawberries for weeks on end over the summer!
Other varieties include everbearers or perpetual strawberries – which produce fruits on and off intermittently during the summer until the first frosts – and alpine strawberries, which crop tiny but delicious fruits from spring until autumn.
Summer fruiting varieties are a great and easy plant to grow in the garden. They grow well in either containers or direct in the ground, and are a great plant to get children interested in growing.
Early varieties will crop from late May, mid-season from mid-June and late varieties from early July.
Strawberries do best in fertile and moist, but well-drained soil, in full sun.
A south-facing and sheltered spot is perfect, along with good rich soil – ideally with manure incorporated prior to planting.
To get the best fruit a fortnightly feed during the summer is recommended and a high potassium feed, such as tomato feed, is ideal.
Whether planted in a pot or in the ground, it is important to plant firmly with its crown just on the surface of the soil.
If the crown is planted too deep the plant may well rot over the coming months. Strawberry plants are often grown in rows 40cm apart with 1m between rows, giving them space to grow.
They don’t like to be allowed to dry out and newly planted strawberry plants require regular watering until established.
When watering, it is advisable to try and water for the roots and to avoid getting the crown and plant wet, as this can encourage disease.
As the first fruits begin to emerge, netting may be needed to protect the fruit. Straw or mats can be laid on top of the soil to help keep the strawberries clean and to suppress weeds, which will compete for moisture and nutrients.
Strawberries are at their best to pick when red all over and eaten straight away. They can be kept in the fridge for a short while, a few days at most, but do not freeze well.
If you are lucky enough to have more strawberries than you can eat fresh, then making them into jam is a great way to preserve them and enjoy over the winter months.
After fruiting has finished, the old and tatty leaves and any netting can be removed to make way for new growth – with the straw or mats taken away to reduce hiding places for pests.
Propagating strawberry plants
Strawberry plants can be propagated, either from seed or from runners.
Growing from seed is relatively tricky with cold treatment often being required prior to sowing and new plants not coming true from hybrid parent plants.
Strawberry plants or runners can often be bought cheaply from garden centres or community sales and are readily available, making it the preferred option for most gardeners.
Runners, or ‘stolons’ as they are also called, are the long leafless stems that the plants produce.
Runners are often produced from year one, but these should be cut off in the first two years and only used for propagation from year three. These runners produce baby plants or plantlets at their ends and it is these that will produce new plants.
The best time to use these runners for new plants is after the plant has finished fruiting, however anytime from late summer until autumn will suffice.
Before making new plants from runners, it is important to make sure that the parent plant is a healthy specimen and free of disease.
The plantlets need contact with the soil to root and grow. Some plantlets may already have roots forming underneath, which need to be buried just below the soil surface.
To enable this soil contact, u-shaped pieces of wire or wire pegs can be used to pin the stem and plantlet directly into the ground or pots already filled with soil.
It is important not to cut off the stem from the parent plant at this stage, but to wait for the new plant to produce new leaves before doing so, usually after 4 – 6 weeks.
Once new leaves have appeared and the new plant has been separated from the parent plant, it can then be transplanted to a new site, left where it is to grow or be potted up.
These new plants will need watering until established, especially if planted in pots, which tend to dry out more quickly.
With newly propagated plants planted out in spring, it is advisable to remove the flowers during the first season, in order to encourage root growth.
A strawberry plant can send out multiple runners during the growing season, however it is recommended to only use 3 – 4 of them for propagation each year.
If you are unable to wait until year three to take runners for propagation, then runners can easily be bought online from reputable suppliers in late summer or early spring.
For the best chance of success, it is best to avoid planting them out during the winter months when the soil is wet and cold.
Common problems, diseases and pests
Birds and squirrels
Birds can destroy a complete strawberry harvest if you are not careful.
Netting or wire mesh will keep the birds out, but it needs to be raised above the plants as netting just draped over the plants still allows the birds to get to the fruit and potentially get entangled and trapped in the netting.
A frame built of wood or plastic hoops made into a tunnel above the plants with netting or mesh draped over, will provide a good deal of protection and allow you to enjoy the fruit when it ripens.
Squirrels are also well known to help themselves to homegrown strawberries.
A wire mesh or chicken wireframe will keep them away from the plants, but it is important not to attract them into the garden as well.
Make sure other sources of food, such as spilt birdseed and open compost heaps are either cleared away or covered.
Late frosts, especially during the month of May when the plants are in flower can be damaging to strawberry crops.
Attention to the forecast is first in the line of defence and if any cold nights are predicted, strawberry plants can be protected with a layer of fleece, polythene or even newspaper. See more guidelines to protecting from frost here.
This needs to be removed during the day when temperatures rise and reapplied as necessary until the firsts are over.
Botrytis Cinerea, or ‘grey mould’ is a disease that affects many plants and fruit.
A common disease, it is characterised by a grey-brown mould that affects the fruit on ripening.
Often worse during humid and wet and overcast weather, prevention includes not overcrowding plants, removing any decaying material and improving ventilation if growing indoors.
There are no chemical treatments for use against grey mould for home gardeners.
Strawberry plants are susceptible to verticillium wilt, a common soil fungus that is often worse during periods of hot weather.
Symptoms displayed include the leaves turning yellow or red/brown and black streaks on the stalks and stems.
Depending on the severity, the affected plants may recover and crop well the following year or wilt completely and die.
There is no chemical control available and Verticillium wilt can live in the soil for many years.
If its presence is confirmed then plants must be destroyed, care taken not to spread the soil around other parts of the garden and the area left fallow or resistant replacements planted.
Propagation need not be intimidating, so why not have a go at growing some free strawberry plants this summer.
Let’s be honest, is it ever possible to have too many strawberries?
As a horticultural therapist, professional gardener and freelance writer, Ed is passionate about the healing properties and processes of gardening and nature. With a background in occupational therapy, Ed now runs a community garden where he aims to encourage and enable the local community to grow fruit, vegetables and cut flowers and experience the many benefits of gardening. Ed lives in West Sussex with his young family and golden retriever, where they look to live the good life by growing as much of their food as possible. See Ed's website here.