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Why home-grown strawberries are still the best – and how to grow them

 fresh, ripe strawberries
 Fresh, ripe strawberries are still a British favourite Credit: Rosemary Calvert / Photographer's Choice

I don’t play my favourite albums often. I listen more to that second tier of music I like. I don’t understand why: it’s not like I walk into the pub and order my fourth favourite ale, or choose a dish I know I like less than another in a restaurant. Perhaps it is a remnant of that Victorian self-denial - saving your favourites for "best" - or a fear that frequent enjoyment might cause the magic to evaporate. It would seem that we do this with fruit too: despite grapes being top of supermarket fruit sales, strawberries remain our favourite, according to a recent survey.

This is especially interesting as most of the strawberries we eat - those available in the supermarkets – are best described as reasonable. Commercial varieties are prioritised for disease resistance, reliability and aesthetics, and the fruit is picked before optimum ripeness for reasons of convenience. They are - to lean one last time on the musical theme - the equivalent of a Beatles tribute band in the pub on a wet Wednesday evening. Perhaps the memory of a perfect, sun-warm strawberry long since eaten has us instinctively declaring it our favourite, but the knowledge of their averageness in the shops has us lifting the grapes into the trolley.

Strawberry 'Royal Sovereign' in a pot Credit: John Glover / Alamy 

Thankfully, we gardeners eat from a different menu. Homegrown, strawberries remain one of the great pleasures of the garden; they never fail to generously surprise in reminding us that, yes, they are even better than we remember. So how do we get to enjoy the very best of our favourite fruit?

With all fruit and vegetables, it's important to remember that the reward can only be as good as your choice of variety: it takes no more effort to grow the most delicious strawberry as the blandest. I confess, my natural leaning is towards delicious varieties that have been around for a while, that I’ve built trust in over a few years of variable summers and that perform consistently well.

My default favourites for a succession of strawberries from May right through to November are ‘Honeoye’, ‘Cambridge Favourite’, ‘Royal Sovereign’ (Carol Klein’s favourite for flavour) and ‘Mara des Bois’. I also grow a couple of "everbearing" varieties, such as ‘Flamenco’, that provide steadily over a long season.

Terry Walton, gardener on the Jeremy Vine Show,  shares my enthusiasm for ‘Cambridge Favourite’: “It’s a consistent cropper with great berries that is one of the easiest to take runners off for future plants.” But for him, “'Marshmello’ is my top variety, as it crops over a long period and is super sweet”.

Mara des Bois strawberries Credit: FORGET Patrick/SAGAPHOTO.COM / Alamy

Of course, even growing varieties familiar from the shops can be a distinct improvement on those you buy. Presenter, Frances Tophill: “I've mainly grown alpine strawberries for taste and because they spread so beautifully, but for familiar strawberries, I grow ‘Elsanta’. You can find the plants everywhere - and when they're homegrown they so much better than the ones you buy”.

That said, it’s good to remain inquisitive and open to discoveries. I always try new varieties each year and add at least one variety - often more - to my garden. If you have the chance to visit Hampton Court Flower Show, you’ll find many excellent varieties on show.

In particular, visit The Edible Eden Garden and you’ll fine the variety ‘Just Add Cream’ grown as part of the garden. Although the long season of sweet and delicious fruit from May until the first frosts should be quite enough to persuade you, the intense fragrance and eye-catching, prolific pink flowers make it doubly compelling.

Pennards Plants are using this variety on The Edible Eden Garden to encourage the next generation to grow their own: in daily sessions, each child gets to plant a small one and take it home to grow it on and in a month or two eat their own strawberries.

Wimbledon strawberries Credit: Lewis Whyld / PA

Many grow strawberries in containers: it can be easier to ensure the fruit have good exposure to sun and breeze, to reduce the likelihood of slug damage and make harvesting simple. ‘Montana’ is a great, compact variety for this, producing masses of white flowers in spring, followed by a long season of largish sweet fruit. You can grow them in the ground, but their form is well suited to container growing. You can even interplant for a few harvests from a single space, as Sarah Raven does: "I like seed-grown ‘Montana’ for grazing for breakfast, and grow it in water troughs with tumbling tomatoes and the dwarf bean ‘Hestia’.”

I’m not one for hanging baskets, but if you are, the splendid ‘Double Pleasures Hanging Pink Wonder’ is a variety perfect for the job: it forms a beautiful tumble of long stalks and runners, that flower abundantly before turning to delicious fruit over a long season. The petals are semidouble with a distinctive twist, so it’s a winner on the eye as well as the tongue.

As well as flavour, bear in mind how you want your harvest: if you love to preserve, choose varieties that crop heavily at the same time; for a steady supply, select a range - like the one I suggest above - that crop over a long season. You also have a choice in how to start strawberries off: the lazy or impatient should follow my lead in planting young plants in early autumn to take advantage of the still-warm soil to get established ahead of winter. Potted plants are useful in that they can be dug into position at any time, and there are those who swear by starting them off from seed: it’s cheap and rewarding to follow the whole journey to the plate.

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