The strawberry has been a favourite summer fruit for hundreds of years. The modern strawberry comes from a cross made early in the 19th century between the European woodland strawberry with wonderful flavour and an American cousin which gave size to the new fruit. It is now loved for its flavour and associations with summer events like barbecues, picnics and tennis. It is grown all over the world, and available to import for 12 months, but the Scottish climate is ideal to develop the best flavour.
Recently we have been able to extend our season using new varieties and techniques, so that we have fresh strawberries from late may to mid October each year. Traditionally, strawberries ripened in Scotland from late June until late July. We can now start a month earlier when we cover the fields early in the year with a film of plastic and then erect polytunnels. Later in the season, we can have strawberries either by planting new plants cold stored until late spring which produce a crop 2 months after planting, or by using a different type of strawberry called an “everbearer” which starts a bit later than the other strawberries, but continues cropping until it is too cold and dark in the Autumn.
- Elsanta This has been our main variety for 20 years and it has been difficult to find new varieties that can beat it for flavour, but some new ones are now being seen. Food writers sometimes claim it is an awful variety, only grown because it is firm and liked by the supermarkets because of its firm flesh which allows them to store it for a few days, but in reality, it has been difficult to find a new variety with a better flavour, and when older varieties have been tried in comparison, their flavour has not been as good as memories suggested. We still grow Elsanta because it does have a quintessentially strawberry flavour, and is firm enough to arrive at customers in good condition, without being so firm that you do not get the lovely juicy sensation of the best strawberries. It can have a lot of mis-shapen berries, but these do not affect the flavour. Its season is from late May to mid July from the main crop, and from July to September from cold stored plants.
- Sonata This is a newer variety, we are now growing it as a replacement for some of the Elsanta, which it is closely related to. It is very similar to Elsanta, but is slightly sweeter, and does not have as many mis-shapen berries. It can be soft in hot weather, so we have to pick it in the early morning on hot days.
Late summer / Autumn crop
- Driscoll's Jubilee This strawberry was released at the time of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, and although it was bred in America, it is only here in the UK that it produces really great tasting fruit. It is chosen by most people as their favourite strawberry, because of its wonderful sweet flavour as well as good juicy texture and fine appearance of glossy red skin and traditional strawberry shape. We can begin picking it in late May if we plant actively growing plants in March, that have been kept growing throughout the winter, but this is expensive and unreliable in Scotland, so we only do this on a small scale. Otherwise we plant cold-stored plants in March and these start fruiting in July.
- Driscoll's Camarillo This is another American variety from Driscolls that produces a good flavoured fruit in our climate. It will crop from July till October. It has a full strawberry flavour, not as sweet as Jubilee, but later in the season it can be especially good.
- Driscoll's Pasadena This is also an American variety from Driscoll’s, giving good flavoured fruit. It is larger fruited than Camarillo, but more susceptible to disease.
Traditionally strawberries were grown in rows on flat ground. Each plant produces “runners” that grow out from the parent and start new plants and so form a “matted row”. We now grow plants through a polythene mulch to keep weeds down, and these rows now stay as single plants as the runners cannot root through the plastic. We also water and feed the plants very accurately and efficiently through irrigation pipes in each row. We then found that strawberries grow much better when their growing bed is raised to a height of about 40cm, as the soil stays drier, and root diseases are kept at bay. The high bed also helps the pickers as the fruit is 40cm off the ground. The final improvement to our growing system has been to cover the entire field in a series of polythene tunnels, supported on steel hoops. These are now vital for a number of reasons. They keep the crop dry which keeps much of the grey mould, which used to plague the strawberry crop, away. We need to spray fewer fungicides because there is less disease pressure. The fruit has a longer “shelf-life” as it does not rot so quickly. We are able to offer our staff work every day, instead of laying them off as soon as there was a shower of rain. We can reliably deliver fruit to our customers whatever the weather. All these advantages come at the price of a lot of work and investment, and also cover the fields with very obvious plastic tunnels, but without the tunnels we could not grow fruit in Scotland today.
Many strawberries are now grown in “substrate” – peat or coir bags instead of the soil, often raised up on table-tops to ease picking. So far we have not used this system as we believe we should use the soil when it is available, but we may be forced to use this system in the future if new disease free ground is not available near to our farms.