Growing Strawberries in The Northern Territory
A classic, all-time favourite fruit which is easy to grow in even the smallest of home gardens or urban spaces. Growing them yourself is incredibly rewarding, and home-grown strawberries are guaranteed to have far more flavour than the mass produced berries on shelves in supermarkets. They will grow happily in a variety of containers and planters, horizontally, vertically, or even upside down from hanging baskets. There are over 45 varieties, and a bunch of them will do really well in the tropical, Top End climate.
Strawberry plants are prone to getting viral and fungal diseases, so allowing your strawberries to become over-crowded, or the beds to be filled with dead leaves and weeds will make the plants more susceptible to these diseases.
Strawberries are originally a cool climate crop, so you may need to set up some shade cloth to protect your plants from the intense summer sun.
Strawberries prefer acid soils, but will grow in a variety of conditions. Whether planting in a bed, or container, dig in compost and manure, followed by rock dust and potash. Avoid nitrogen rich fertilisers, as well planting your strawberries in soil which has previously been used to grow beans, peas and any other legumes or berries. For planting, dig out a bed, put down some sheep manure, with several handfuls of blood and bone, then compost and finish with the original soil in a mound about 15cm high.
Give your seedlings a chance to become established by sowing seed early in the dry season.
Provide your strawberry seeds with an artificial cold winter by chilling your strawberry seeds in the freezer for 2-4 weeks.
Growing strawberries from seed is not for the impatient gardener, as most plants grown from seed will only bear fruit a year after planting (or 5 months in the case of Alpine strawberries). Considering the short window of cooler temperatures during the dry season, it is best to grow your strawberries from crowns.
Give your seedlings a chance to become established by planting them early in the dry season.
Plant crowns at ground level, but make sure that the roots are completely covered.
Propagating strawberry plants is not very difficult, and can be incredibly rewarding. You can use on of 3 methods:
1. Grow new plants from seeds.
2. Once more crowns begin to grow from the base of the plant, separate these and transplant them, but be careful not to damage either part in the process.
3. Propagate from runner. This is the easiest method of propagating strawberry plants. Simply guide one of the runners shooting out from the plant into a neighbouring pot or container with nutritious soil and wait for it to establish a strong root system. The runner will eventually dry up and break off, and you will be free to move the pot to its new home. If you're impatient: just wait till you seed good growth and then then snip the runner to free the new plant from the parent plant.
Remove the runners, weeds and dead leaves to avoid diseases as well as to stimulate growth and an increase in fruit production. Take the plants out of the ground every year, replant in a new bed, and use runners to generate new plants. If your seedling seem to be suffering in the heat, you can keep them cool by adding some ice cubes or plastic bottles with frozen water to keep the soil moist.
Drip irrigating works wonderfully for strawberries. Keep the soil moist by watering regularly, but avoid over-watering, as this can cause the fruit to rot and attract snails. When the bulk of the harvest is nearly ripe, avoid heavy soaking to increase the flavour. Watering too much during this phase might mean bigger fruit, but a decrease in flavour.
Fertilise in at the beginning of the dry season with compost and worm castings if available. Apply liquid seaweed fortnightly, as it protects the leaves from some pests and sweetens fruits. Feed with liquid potash when flowers appear, to sweeten fruit.
Plastic mulch, with holes perforated for the plants is an option. This will help to control weeds and keeps the plants warm, but it can also impact soil health negatively, and does not biodegrade. The natural alternative is clean straw mulch, which can be added close around the plants. Pine needle mulch around the plants is also beneficial, as it increases soil acidity.
Different varieties will be ready to harvest at different times. Most strawberries ripen in spring, but some varieties may produce fruit all the way into autumn. You can expect to pick the first fruit 20-35 days after the flowers appear. Wait until the fruit are shiny and have developed a good colour and then pick them by cutting the stem. Once picked, they will keep in the refrigerator for 3 -5 days.