Strawberries and figs

What connection could there possibly be between these two fruits- other than both suffering from an outrageous degree of bird damage. Well they are both easier grown in the drier parts of the UK but more importantly they both do very well grown in pots taken under cover to fruit.

The strawberry is actually one of our newest fruits in it’s current form though the tiny wild ones were known to the ancients. The modern strawberry was created at the start of the Victorian era when a North American Virginian strawberry, small and sweet, got crossed with a South American Chilean strawberry, big but not so nice. The resulting large tasty hybrid has since been crossed, recrossed and re-selected for nearly two hundred years and we now have amazingly big, tasty and productive varieties. Of course the wild forms have a place as they offer a different choice of flavours but they are small fruited and low yielding by comparison.

So there is not just one sort of strawberry but several, though the usual early summer fruiting ones are predominant. The range of strawberry flavour is larger than imagined and it is near impossible to describe, only by comparing two different fruits side by side do you notice. I grow dozens of varieties and visitors are astounded by the differences between some. Not only in size and sweetness, but texture, acidity, perfume, all vary from one to another. Truly you have to grow many varieties and compare for yourself. Never settle for the first you like but try several, especially as each will vary with your soil and situation. And as you have to replant every three or four years then trying new varieties can be a continuous process. Keep replanting, predominantly your favourites, but also compare them with a few plants each of the most likely newcomers.

These fruits love a sunny place. Not baking hot and arid, more dappled sun, preferably with moist soil full of leaf mould. Bone meal and compost are always worth adding beforehand. Young plants need to be in place by late summer to grow well through autumn and fruit the following year- however if you deflower them that year and wait for the following they then give really huge crops. That is if they have enough space. Plant at two foot intervals at a minimum, preferably even further apart. You can double up temporarily; plant at say foot and a half apart, then in the following spring you deflower alternate plants, and crop the rest. As soon as those have finished cropping they are removed to leave space for the deflowered plants to develop a load of flower buds for a massive crop the next year. (Strawberries make these buds in the autumn)

De-runnering is necessary and is simply trimming all runners as soon as seen. It’s worth doing all the first year from planting, and again the second year, but in the third year you may as well let runners go as the whole bed should be removed after the next or final harvest. Now here is a moot point. I planted a bed of two dozen varieties and kept it going over six years. I observed that just as the books say it was pointless keeping plants beyond their third harvest. A fourth harvest is given by some varieties but the size and quality were poor. Only one variety, Maxim, actually seemed worth having the fourth and fifth harvests and that may just have been luckily well suited to my site. Thus to keep up regular cropping it makes sense to replace a third of your plants every year. Preferably in a new bed elsewhere, in fact strawberries can go well in the vegetable bed as they are so short term.

Pot culture is good option and fits well with the continual replacement strawberries need. Big pots with rich compost and copious watering and feeding give good results., and can be made bird and slug proof easily. Pot grown plants can be taken indoors in late winter into cool bright frost free conditions to crop many weeks ahead of the earliest outdoor ones. Hand pollination is essential for the earliest flowers, and having a mixture of varieties helps set those earliest fruits. Give them plenty of air and light but not heat, and watch for red spider mite. The strawberry planters as advertised may be useful for tiny gardens as a decorative feature but as a means of production they are poor. The total volume of soil/compost is too small for good crops and the amount of watering and feeding too demanding. Far better crops are had by putting the same number of plants in individual large pots. And those in pots are then easier to replace as the plants deteriorate.

(For replacements it is best to allow one or two healthy plants to produce runners to root into pots, to de-flower those plants redirecting all their energy into their replacements while still ruthlessly de-runnering all others.)

The plants outdoors need straw placing under them once the fruits have set, a layer of newspaper first makes the straw go further. Rough chopped composted bark is a fair substitute. Many claim pine needle mulches give a better flavour and reduce slug damage. Cocoa shell mulch is another good alternative. Or pop the flower trusses into plastic bottles with their bottoms cut off and this saves netting against birds as well.

Always pick the strawberry with it’s little stem as if you pull the fruit off the plug the plug may rot and infect other fruits. Likewise pick and dispose of ALL rotting fruits, preferably before they go fluffy! Nets and slug pubs are worth their effort.

Autumn fruiters are later cropping varieties, they often summer crop and just continue on cropping into the autumn until the frosts. If the earlier trusses are removed the later crops are heavier. Not as sweet as summer fruits these late ones do have very good and perfumed flavours and give good crops in autumn. Thus with pot grown, main and autumn fruiters you can easily have fresh strawberries for about half the year. Forcing them for winter crops is far harder and less rewarding though not impossible.

The Alpine strawberry from seed is also worth having for it’s small but well flavoured seedy fruits. It will grow anywhere and makes good if not long lived ground cover. Flowering and fruiting for months on end it has good wildlife value too. Often sold as wild strawberries it is not! The true Wild strawberries are hard to find, shy, shade loving, runnering more than fruiting. I grow mine in the tubs with blueberries which suits them fine. However these are difficult to get to crop heavily, but are delicious and the original fruit Shakespeare knew. Incidentally- past writers extolled the evocative smell of fading strawberry plants in autumn; which I have yet to detect, have you?

Figs are almost unchanged since Roman times when evidence shows the dried fruits were brought here. As figs do occasionally spontaneously appear from seed there may well have been fig trees growing here and there since then. However as the figs we cultivate here do not develop seeds they have never become naturalised. (A minute Mediterranean wasp, found wild in the Capri-figs as they are called, is needed for pollinating the fruits to set seed)

Figs are remarkably hardy and long lived and make fine ornamental subjects as well as cropping trees. Their main drawback is their tendency to run to wood production when they find water and fertility. Thus figs were often planted in brick built boxes, or against a wall which has a similar constricting effect. Figs otherwise can be very productive but this is their weakness. Striving to make three crops a year, which they could in warmer zones, they often fail to ripen any at all. The answer is to remove every fig from them, no matter how small, in early winter. If these are left on they might just ripen after a mild winter for an early crop. However most years the vast majority of these small fruits get chilled, develop thick skins, start to swell in spring then crack and fall off. This weakens the tree which is then slow producing the next batch of fig-lets which do not develop in time to ripen before the frosts return. If the fig is cleared of all fig-lets in early winter the new crop develops earlier and ripens in summer- though it still pays to thin the number down ruthlessly. If thinned then figs can reach orange or grapefruit size as well as being melting and sweet! Outdoors the birds will rob you even before the figs are fully ripe- so paper bags popped over the best looking fruits are worth the effort.

Figs need no feeding or watering once established and are best left unpruned. However if they produce lots of long jointed wooded then this should be removed and the short jointed wood retained. (In winter, some prefer early on when the leaves fall as less sap drips then but I prefer later once the hardest frosts are over. Take care with the sap as it is caustic and burns.) Figs have been permanently housed under cover but become prone to many pests so this cannot be recommended.

Without a doubt figs are best grown in tubs or large pots as then they are far more productive, stay more compact and rarely need any pruning. The cramping caused is only a benefit though necessitating regular watering and a little feeding occasionally. And by growing in containers the plant can spend most of winter outdoors to come indoors in late winter and be forced for an earlier crop. This then ensures the figs ripen when the sun is strongest and gives sweeter fruits- well protected from the birds by being indoors.

Recommended varieties-

Taste is a personal matter but I find Maxim, Gariguette (may autumn crop), Marshmello, Cambridge Late Pine and the very old Royal Sovereign to be my favourites in summer with Mara des Bois and the now hard to find Aromel best in autumn. With figs over forty are available, but good for most purposes are Brunswick and the very similar Brown Turkey.