Winter gardening hack for an ‘extra early’ strawberry harvest

Alan Titchmarsh demonstrates how to grow strawberries

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Strawberries can be enjoyed throughout the year from supermarkets but they are best picked fresh from the garden on a warm summer’s day. While you may have already planted these flavoursome fruits, there are still months to go until the juicy red berries appear. However, according to one kitchen gardener, there is a way to speed up the process. Taking to Twitter, Rob Smith (@RobsAllotment) shared the simple hack to secure “extra early strawberries” that you can do right now.

The best time to plant strawberries is in the autumn either in pots or directly into the ground outdoors. While most strawberry plants require little attention until the warmer months when they really start to grow, kitchen gardener Rob Smith explained that winter is a crucial time if you’re looking to pick some early fruits.

In a recent post on Twitter, the gardener shared that potted strawberry plants can be moved to a sheltered spot in order to speed up the growing process.

He wrote: “By moving a few plants into an unheated greenhouse or cold frame you can force them into growth and encourage a crop weeks before those planted outside.”

The gardening expert noted that doing so will secure an “extra early” crop, with juicy strawberries ready to eat well before late summer.

Before leaving the pots in your greenhouse or cold frame, Rob recommended doing some light pruning to ensure the energy goes into fruit production instead of the foliage.

He said: “Be sure to remove any brown or yellowing leaves when you move them.”

While some people remove old leaves and shoots towards the end of February, the gardener noted that he tends to leave the green shoots on to grow which is why he prunes in January instead.

The kitchen gardener added that if you do decide to move your pots to a sheltered spot, you should take care to remove any runners from the plant in February.

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According to an expert at the Sunday Gardener, a period of cold during the winter is essential for “good fruiting strawberries”,  so heat sources are not necessary to help the crop speed up.

While Rob’s tip only applies to potted strawberry plants, the Sunday Gardener explained that it is possible to force ground-grown varieties earlier in summer too, though you should wait another month or so to do this.

They said: “By about February, it is possible to warm up the soil and plants to bring on an earlier crop by covering the plants with a cloche.”

To do this, pick over the plants to remove dead and diseased leaves and stray runners before weeding the area.

Add some new compost to boost the growing environment and cover the area with a cloche. The Sunday Gardener expert added: “Early in the season, I would also seal the ends of the cloche for maximum warmth.

“As the season warms up, remove the cloche ends and later remove the cloche altogether on warm days to allow air and the pollinators in.”

Watering is still important even when the plants are covered, so be sure to keep lifting and watering the strawberries to keep them well hydrated. 

If you don’t have a plant cloche, a clear plastic tarp, bottles or even plastic glasses can be used instead.

If you haven’t yet planted strawberries in your garden, it can be done in spring. However, this could mean you miss out on an abundant crop as strawberries typically yield the most fruit in years two, three and four.

For container-grown strawberries, plant about five plants into a 30cm container. At the end of the growing season, trim down all the leaves and runners and feed. The plants will quickly put on new growth, according to the Sunday Gardener.

If you have time, feed with liquid feed from spring onward, being careful to avoid splashing the leaves. This also applies when watering as strawberry plants are prone to fungal diseases such as Botrytis.

The gardening expert added: “Strawberries are a frost hardy perennial, which means once you have set out your dedicated strawberry patch, they will withstand our winters and fruit for a few years.”

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