While I have nothing against preserves, the best fruit has to be ultra-fresh, eaten within minutes or even seconds of picking, while still warm from a sunny garden. And for me, strawberries are one of the most mouth-watering garden treats of all.
Careful choice of varieties can prolong your harvest, ensuring a trickle of fresh strawberries over a long period without having to resort to a bout of jam-making just to deal with a glut. If you just can't wait for that irresistible homegrown strawberry taste, for the very earliest harvest you'll need to force early varieties under cover.
Growing Strawberries Under Cover
Typically, strawberries forced under cover will begin fruiting two to four weeks earlier than those grown outside. If you have a heated greenhouse all the better. If not, don't despair – you can still enjoy great results by bringing strawberry plants into a cold greenhouse.
If you potted up some runners to replace tired old strawberry plants last year, select a few of these for forcing. If you didn't do that, leave plants where they are instead and cover them up with a row cover or cloche. One or two-year-old plants are best for forcing.
Late winter or early spring is the best time to bring strawberry plants under cover for forcing, as they'll have experienced a good cold snap and will be ready to burst into growth.
When you bring the pots indoors (or, if plants will be staying in the ground, before you cover them up), take the opportunity to treat your plants to a tidy up. Snip off the old, dead leaves, remove any runners that have formed, then give plants a top-dressing of fresh compost, potting soil or well-rotted manure. Fresh, new, bright green leaves will quickly appear as the strawberries respond to the warmth of their protected environment and find spring coming earlier than they had expected.
Watch out for red spider mites, which like a warm, dry environment and will suck sap from your strawberry plants. Raising the humidity makes the environment less appealing for red spider mites, so keep potting soil moist and regularly damp down (splash the greenhouse floor with water). Aphids can also be a problem but are easily squashed by hand if you're not too squeamish.
Remember to provide ventilation on mild, sunny days to encourage airflow, which will help to prevent fungal problems.
Encouraging Forced Strawberries to Produce Early Fruit
Insect pollinators such as bumblebees may well visit your strawberry flowers but it's unwise to rely on them this early in the year. Instead, using a soft brush such as an artist's paintbrush, hand-pollinate your plants by gently tickling the inside of each flower once a day after they've fully opened.
Once flowering starts, it's time to begin feeding; apply a liquid tomato fertiliser weekly. Plenty of sun and heat is instrumental in developing the intensity of flavor, so don't be too disappointed if these aren't the richest-flavoured strawberries you've ever grown.
James Wong recommends growing them through a mulch of red plastic film to reflect light back onto the plants and help produce bigger, tastier berries (incidentally, the same technique may also work for tomatoes).
Forced strawberry plants will be tired after the effort of starting so early (I'm the same in the mornings!) so shouldn't be used for forcing next year. The usual advice is to discard forced plants, but it would be a hard-hearted gardener who didn't give forced strawberries the chance to grow on and fruit again next year – after all, they will have served you so well at a time of year when fruit is scarce. If you do decide to keep them, you'll need to either repot your strawberries into a larger container or, if you have the room, replant them in the ground.
If you have enough space in your garden it's worth choosing an even spread of early, mid and late varieties, as well as setting aside some runners of your earlies for forcing. This way you'll have the longest possible season for fresh eating and will avoid having to deal with gluts. It would be a shame to get sick of something as delicious as strawberries!