Thursday, August 25, 2016

Introduction to Alpine Strawberries, Fragaria Vesca by Jan Boone, Master Gardener

As Spring started to show early signs of arrival, my attention was quickly taken in by a brief article on Alpine Strawberries in the Spring issue of Heirloom Magazine.  As a foothills resident, I thought it would be a great little experiment to try and educate myself on these for this season, so I’m sharing my experiences after 3 months of worthy efforts.  Here are 5 simple considerations to pass along from this trial:

1.       What exactly is an Alpine strawberry?  It’s not your standard hybrid Fragaria variety of garden plant with runners streaming down pots, across garden pathways and greatly loved by all for their fat red berries, sweet tastes and bountiful production. (Assuming no persistent birds or small critters are in close proximity).  The perennial Alpine origins are quite interesting, from Persia along the Silk Road into Europe and eventually into North America.  The Europeans started cultivation of the larger Fragaria strawberries in the 18th century which eventually became the early forbearers of what the popular hybrid  varieties are today. The Alpine woodland favorites were originally known as Toot Farangi.  They are small fruited, equally sweet &  flavorful and even now a favorite decoration on French patisserie!  (No wonder I was taken).  Many varieties of Alpine strawberries have no runners and may be used as low, bush-like border or ground cover plants in the garden setting, with heights of 8-10”. Contemporary cultivars relish the sun, but there are several varieties that do well in partial shade.  It is easy to do an online search for cultivar characteristics of Alpines from larger growers.
2.       Challenge #1.  Sourcing.  Surprisingly, I found the larger urban garden centers mostly unaware about these Alpine plants.  Box store nursery sections are not the place to look for these small jewels.  Most garden centers directed me to seed packs, which were for the standard Fragaria plants!  A good friend suggested Boulder or Ft. Collins as better sources. Not being able to work day trips into my schedule, I resorted to the Internet.  I held my breath but ended up ordering 2 cultivars from a Delaware grower of Alpines.  The plants were reasonable in price.  So reasonable, I wasn’t sure what I’d get. I finally chose two runnerless cultivars , one for sun (Bowlenzauber) and another for part shade (Pineapple Crush).  Both rated well for growth and productivity. I was happily surprised when I opened the box to see the health & vigor of the plants.
Growing Alpines from seed is far more daunting and could be a true challenge for those patient enough to wait for the two year payout.
3.       Challenge #2.  Beds or Containers and what about soils at altitude??  Feeling inspired, I decided to split plants between beds and containers.  The beds were my standard foothills soil (sand & clay w/minimal organic matter). In one small bed, I added a one third mix of peat to loosen the soil plus nitrogen fertilizer to get roots established, then nothing was added  in the second Control area bed.   I caged both plantings immediately at the perimeter to discourage any sneaky little critters.  The balance of plants were assigned to small deck containers w/drainage holes.  The soils here were ¾ potting soil, ¼ peat and nitrogen fertilizer to establish roots.  (Official planting Day was April 14, 2016.)
4.       Challenge #3. Growing.  Water management is essential to keep plants and soils moist, as the plants become established. With luck I have found healthy leaf  growth and flowering as rewards!  I have had some sun scorch on leaves from part shade varieties, but as of late July, the amended soils bed area plants are alive with healthy leaves over the majority of the plant, but no sign of flowering. The non-amended Control bed plant seems to be shrinking in comparison!!  The container plants are quite happy with healthy leaves and several small flowers to date.  

5.       Challenge #4.  What next??  I have recently fertilized all plants to encourage bloom production.  I was only able to get a 20-20-20 fertilizer the day I went shopping, so time will tell.  I need to expand my knowledge in this arena. I have read that Alpines prefer a compost rich soil, so aged contributions from a friend’s horse were added in the past month.  Between now and October when the plant beds will be put to rest for the winter with mulch and compost, I will watch for insect and animal infestation. I may consider partial burial of the containers in a sunny southern exposure to over-winter?  I plan to also crisscross thread the tops of the cages to discourage browsing elk and deer attacks as fall gets closer.  To date, the containers have managed not to be discovered by the chipmunks.

This has been an enlightening trial.  Valuable lessons have been reinforced for me, yet again.  We live in an area where soils, fertilizing and water management DO matter. Barring any surprise hail or animal attacks, I hope to have at least several berries to adorn a tart soon.  I encourage everyone to take the time to experiment with something new in their gardens that can be shared with friends and family.

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