Perennial Edibles

Perennial crops bear a delectable harvest year after year without replanting.

By Ellen Ecker Ogden

Photography by Rob Cardillo

Woodland Strawberry
Fragaria vesca
Woodland strawberries, one of humankind's oldest forage foods, have become a kitchen-garden favorite. Also called alpine strawberries or fraises des bois, they are prized for the intense, sweet flavor of the petite berries. Plants remain compact, and many varieties produce no runners, a trait that makes them ideal as an edging or in a container such as a strawberry pot. Barbara Pierson, nursery manager at White Flower Farm, admits that woodland strawberries are an acquired taste. "They are not the huge, fat strawberry," Pierson says. "The small, pointed berry is very sweet, with an intense strawberry flavor that bursts on your tongue. Yet don't expect to harvest enough to make jam." What the harvest lacks in quantity it makes up for in duration, from late spring into fall.
Just a few varieties of woodland or alpine strawberries are available to the home gardener, including some with white fruits. Grow the plants from seed or, to save time, purchase virus-free plants from a nursery. Plant them in early spring in full or part sun. Woodland strawberries need only 6 hours of intense sun in order to fruit; this makes them especially good around the base of fruit trees or bordering the edge of a kitchen garden.
Prepare the soil deeply and add plenty of compost. Space plants 8 inches apart, fanning the roots in the soil and positioning the crown—the thick bit of "stem" just above the roots—at soil level. It does not take long for the plants to establish; harvest can begin the same season. Some varieties send out runners, which can be used to propagate new plants or trimmed off to divert energy to fruit production.
Woodland strawberries are generally resistant to many of the diseases and pests that afflict standard June-bearing strawberries, yet they are susceptible to slugs, whiteflies, and aphids. Maintain fertile soil and adequate space between plants to help minimize these pests.
When watering strawberries, water only the soil and not the foliage, as moisture on the leaves encourages growth of fungus.
At the end of the harvest season, top-dress the strawberry bed lightly with compost. Plan to divide crowns every third spring, or when they become clumpy. "They are tough plants, and you can rip them into pieces," Pierson says. "They are very forgiving that way."