When a writer sets out to deal with fruit so popular as the Strawberry, he may, I hope, be pardoned if he is tempted to fly to some writer fond of odd phrases and tortuous allusions - Mr. Meredith, for example - in search of a fresh stock of adjectives.
Strawberries have been written up by growers of old-time so often and eloquently that the poor twentieth century scribbler has but a moderate chance of saying anything fresh. He can chat about new varieties, about "new-fangled" manures, and then, as far as freshness goes, his course is run.
It is odd, though, that plenty of bad Strawberries are still grown - as many, perhaps, as ever there were. And here one comes face to face with a fact that must have struck many of my readers before it struck me, and that is, multiply sources of instruction as you will, the fascination of growing things badly is so overpowering that thousands succumb to it. What difficulty is there, to begin with, in propagating Strawberries, that people will persist in sticking to those old beds, with their tangled masses of runners and foliage? They know that the old beds mean a poor supply of fruit; they know that young beds mean good fruit; and yet they go on year after year without making an effort at improvement.
I should like to say to all such people, Lock up the tennis racket, or the bicycle, or the cricket bat, that is the cause of the trouble in the Strawberry bed, for just one day. Get a supply of small pots - 2 or 3 inch will do beautifully - fill them right up to the top with good loamy soil, ram it very hard, and place the pots round the plant. Examine the latter for the runners. You will probably find plenty of them from the end of June onward, and here I may say that the earlier the runners are got the better, so long as they are good ones. A good runner is one which has a little tufty plantlet on it, with two or three small leaves - good, that is, if it is on a plant that is fruiting itself, but not good if the plant be barren, for the runner is likely to throw a sterile plant. If the grower has forcing in view he ought to get the first plantlet, for let it be known that there may be several on one runner.
There are growers, and small blame to them, who shirk the trouble of repotting in the case of their forcing stock. Work is heavy and hands are scarce, so they just layer the runners into 6 inch pots straight away. Again, there are people who find squares of turf more convenient than pots, and the plants do well in them. Layering may be done from July onwards, but if it is left till late the runners take root on their own account. It saves a great deal of trouble to take these, and consequently there are plenty of people who do it, but the plants are invariably backward, and rarely fruit the following season.
There is room for latitude as to planting, and this again encourages faulty practice. As a matter of fact, Strawberries may be planted almost any month in the year, but all months are not equally good. August is a splendid month if the plants are strong and the weather showery, because they have a good chance of establishing themselves in September and October. But the plants may be put in almost any time between August and May.
There is plenty of room for differences of opinion on the subject of manures. Many good growers like to dung their ground heavily, and rely on this one heavy dressing to carry the plants through their three years of life. As they get satisfactory results from the system they are apt to think that it is the only one. There is no "one and only" system with plants; Nature did not build them that way. Fine Strawberries can be grown with the dung-cart, and fine ones can be grown without it. It may be of assistance to those who cannot get abundant supplies of good manure if I give a mixture that I have found admirable. It consists of 3 lb. of sulphate of potash, 3 lb. of superphosphate, and 1 lb. of nitrate of soda per square rod. The time to apply it is when the ground is trenched, which should be in the previous autumn or winter, if possible. Half the quantity should be worked into the subsoil, and the remainder mixed with the top spit.
The distance apart at which to plant opens up fresh scope for mischief. Why boggle over a point like this when the space between widely planted Strawberries can always be made use of the first season for prize Onions? One of our best Onion and Strawberry growers always does this. Of course, other people who found it good the first season would want to imitate it the second, when the Strawberries required more room, and therein they would come to grief. There is no better rule as to planting than to give Sir Joseph Paxton 3 by 2 feet, and the rest 2 1/2 by 2 feet.
It is a great encouragement to young Strawberries to cut off all the runners the first year, and it is a great help to old ones to go over the beds in autumn, trim up the plants, remove all the old leaves, and loosen the soil round the crowns.
If Strawberries intended for forcing are struck into 3 inch pots, as many are, they should be transferred to 6 inch when roots show at the drainage hole. A very good compost for them is sound, fibrous loam 3 parts, leaf mould 1 part, and bone meal at the rate of 1 pint to each bushel of soil. The plants must not be left exposed in the winter, or damp and frost will do sad work between them. The plants must either be put in a frame or else stacked on their sides and covered with bracken or litter.
Forcing may begin in December if there is a warm house, but it is well to bear in mind that there is danger of the plants going blind if a high temperature is maintained in dull weather. A night temperature of 50° to 55° is suitable, with a rise of 10° by day. Beware of letting the plants set and swell a large number of fruits in dull weather. The inevitable result is small and uneven berries. The grower who satisfies himself with half a dozen per plant will come out better than the one who allows the plant to do as it likes.
There are too many varieties of Strawberries. When some daring nurseryman arises who will cut his list down to thirteen or fourteen sorts we shall all bless him - and buy from the other man just the same ! That cultivator is the most sensible who fixes on two or three standard sorts which he knows to be suitable and good, and makes them his sheet anchor. Such Strawberries are Sir Joseph Paxton, Royal Sovereign, and Vicomtesse Hericart de Thury. I by no means say that these are the best for all soils, but I claim that they average the most successes.
The following are remarkable for fine flavour: British Queen, Dr. Hogg, Countess, and Latest of All.
The following are good late varieties: Eleanor, Elton Pine, and Waterloo. The following are good "Perpetuals": Gunnersburv Alpine and St. Joseph. The following are excellent new sorts: Fillbasket, Mentmore, Scarlet Queen, Thomas Laxton, and Louis Gauthier.
The following are good for forcing: La Grosse Sucree, Royal Sovereign, and Vicomtesse Hericart de Thury. Excellent garden sorts not included in these lists are President, Newton Seedling, and Auguste Nicaise. Good early varieties are King of the Earlies and Royal Sovereign.
A, Strawberry plant planted in the right way, by means of a trowel or hand fork. The crown of the plant is set at the proper level; this is ensured by leaving on a few inches of the runner a. The fibrous roots b are spread out in well crumbled soil.
B, is a strong plant lifted with a trowel and having a good ball of soil, c, adhering to the roots.
C, is a plant which has been rooted in a pot sunk in the soil. The lower part of the pot is filled with roots, d.
D, shows the wrong method of planting. The crown f is buried in the soil, and the roots e are crammed into a narrow hole made by a dibber. Such planting never yields a crop the summer after planting.
A, taking the runner: a, parent plant in fruit, the first runner chosen as the best for layering into pots, especially for early forcing; b, single crock over the aperture of a 3 inch pot; c, compost; d, the runner properly placed in the pot, duly secured with a galvanised wire peg, and the growth beyond the runner cut off; e, drainage of a 5 inch pot (or larger) for forcing therein; f, soil; g, runner at a stage when it is well rooted and may be detached from the parent.
.B, young plant transferred from a 3 inch to a 6 inch pot: h, drainage; i, rougher parts of the compost; j, soil rammed firm under and around the plant; k, ball of soil and roots of runner; l. space for holding water in watering.
C, young plant or runner from the open ground, as sometimes employed for potting at the beginning of September for forcing in 5 inch pots late in the season.
D, plant in 6 inch pot after completing and ripening off growth, with the dead leaves trimmed off, the surface soil stirred, a top-dressing given, the pots washed, and all ready for introducing to the forcing house.
E, plant at the fruiting stage, with the fruits duly thinned to half a dozen.
F, similar plant with the fruit not thinned, showing berries smaller and uneven.