When people talk about "affordable luxury," they often mean fancy watches or designer clothes. They're forgetting one of the most affordable luxuries of all: a supply of ultrafresh fruit right outside the back door. Anybody, at any level of gardening experience, can indulge a passion for delicious, high-quality fruits by growing strawberries, blueberries, and figs in containers. It requires a minimal investment of time and money, yet repays luscious dividends. Though most any fruit can be grown in a container, these three time-tested favorites are a good place to start, because they easily adapt to having their roots confined.
Gardening in pots can be more labor-intensive than growing the same plants in the ground. For one thing, the restricted root zone makes container gardens more dependent on the gardener for water and nutrients—a situation partly remedied by a simple drip irrigation system on a timer. And in winter, plants in pots are more exposed to cold temperatures and may require protection. The extra effort is justified when growers of these fragile fruits get to enjoy them at their peak moment of ripeness.
These herbaceous perennials are highly productive and delicious. Catalogs separate strawberries into four groups: June-bearing varieties yield one large crop, ripening in late spring or early summer, depending on the climate. Their all-at-once nature makes June-bearers the preferred choice of those who wish to process the harvest for storage, but less desirable for container gardeners wanting a steady stream of fresh fruits. Everbearing are the most heat-tolerant type, with two crops—one in June and a smaller crop later in summer. Day-neutrals provide multiple flushes of berries from late spring until early autumn. The fruits tend to be smaller than those of June-bearers, but the nearly nonstop harvest extends for months longer. (Some nursery catalogs fail to distinguish between everbearing and day-neutral varieties.) Finally, alpine berries, also called woodland strawberries or fraises des bois, descend from wild strawberries. They are low-maintenance and bear tiny, intensely fragrant fruits from late spring until fall. Alpine strawberries can be tucked among other plants to create a charming window box or hanging basket.
Pot. An 18-inch-wide weatherproof container can accommodate 10 to 12 plants; two can accommodate the 25-plant bunches typically sold. Shallow containers, as little as 10 inches deep, are fine. Pocketed "strawberry pots" can be difficult to keep sufficiently watered, though they do save space.
Soil. Strawberries demand excellent drainage—their crowns rot in wet soil. They also have a very high nutrient demand, however, so give them a rich growing medium, blending 3 parts of a light, friable potting mix with 1 part compost.
Light. Place containers where they receive at least 8 hours of direct sunlight a day. Bright, breezy locations help to thwart fungal diseases.
Water. Because of their shallow roots, strawberries must be watered regularly. Do not allow the plants to become drought-stressed.
Recommended varieties. Select for regional adaptability and taste. Container gardeners should look first to the perpetually fruiting day-neutrals, such as 'Tristar', 'Tribute', or 'Mara des Bois'; or any variety of alpine strawberry. Everbearing varieties 'Ogallala' and 'Ozark Beauty' perform well in hot climates. Because June-bearers yield only one harvest a year, they may not merit the container real estate they demand.
Pruning. Many strawberries put out runners, which divert energy from fruiting to plant production. Unless they are wanted to propagate new plants, remove runners as they appear.
Fertilizer. Apply low-nitrogen fertilizer in early spring, late spring, and midsummer.
Hardiness. Strawberries are suitable for USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 through 9, depending on variety.
Caveats. Strawberries are the shortest-lived of these three fruits and may stop bearing in as few as 2 or 3 years. Start with fresh soil and new plants when harvests decline.
Read the complete Strawberry Growing Guide.
Fig Tree Photo by Andrea Jones/Garden Exposures Library
Strawberry Photo by Rob Cardillo/Burpee