What could be more satisfying than succulent, sweet strawberries, fresh from the stalk? How about succulent, sweet strawberries that grow in half the time and are available all year round? Fruit that will save you money while also filling you with the immense gratification of knowing that those delicious berries were grown in your garden, by your hand. Sound good? Then read on!
Choosing the Right Variety of Strawberry
Strawberry varieties are wide and varied, with each species preferring different environmental factors. More importantly, they all have diverse bearing timelines. Some produce fruit within a month, while others take a number of months to yield ripe berries. Particular varieties only bear at certain times of the year, even when grown indoors or in hydroponic systems, so this is worth keeping in mind when choosing a strain. If you’re in the market for an endless supply of strawberries on tap, then be sure to select an ever-bearing species which produce 3 harvests a year, or a day-neutral strain which produce fruit continuously.
Some varieties are better suited to hydroponic growing, including-
- Red Gauntlet
The Best Hydroponic Systems for Growing Strawberries
Hydroponics beginners might be wary of spending a lot of money at the outset, preferring instead to dip their toes in with a basic DIY system. Easy and cheap to construct, a very minimal system can be thrown together using some growing medium, containers and tubing. However, don’t expect any miracle results- this baby will simply confirm whether you have the hydroponic bug or not. If you’re serious about growing super-fruit, then a proper system will run rings around a homemade version.
The two most common systems used for growing strawberries are N.F.T and Ebb and Flow.
N.F.T is the most widely used technique for growing strawberries hydroponically. The plants sit in a net pot with their roots hanging freely in the root zone. The grow tray is set at an incline, and the nutrient solution is pumped continuously in a circuit from the reservoir into the grow tray and back again.
N.F.T is a very effective and efficient growing method as the nutrient solution is reused. However, it is extremely dependent on the water pump, so it’s a good idea to have an alternative power source available in the event of an electricity failure. As the plant roots are exposed, they are very vulnerable, and any interruption in nutrient supply could be catastrophic to your crop in a matter of hours.
Ebb and Flow
The ebb and flow (or flood and drain) method is quite similar to N.F.T, except the plant roots are submerged in a growing medium. Large volumes of nutrient solution are pumped regularly from the reservoir into the grow tray. The pump cycle lasts a few minutes before shutting off, leaving the growing medium flooded with solution. Gravity then drains the solution back into the reservoir over time before the cycle begins again.
As ebb and flow uses a growing medium, plants aren’t as vulnerable and dependent on a reliable electricity supply.
Seed or Plugs?
After settling on a strawberry variety and hydroponic system, the next step is deciding how you will start your strawberry plants. Seeds are a cheap and basic method. However, it can be a slow and lengthy process, with seeds taking 2-3 years to mature into fruit bearing plants. Not quite in keeping with the hydroponic speed-gardening ethos!
Plugs are a much quicker option. They are simply strawberry plants that have matured to the stage where they have yet to sprout large roots. Although more expensive to buy than seeds, plugs are much less demanding to work with and in some cases, you can look forward to your first yield of strawberries within a few weeks.
Minimal Salt, Maximum Light
The beauty of hydroponics is the ability to tweak the growing conditions to specific parameters, meaning you can create the exact environment your plants need to maximise your fruit yield. The three factors that contribute most to the growth and health of your plants are nutrition, light and temperature.
The main nutrients required by strawberry plants are nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. On top of this, they need magnesium, calcium and sulfur, as well as hydrogen, carbon and oxygen which they absorb from water and air.
Unlike a lot of plants, strawberries favour low salt levels. This can be checked using an electrical conductivity (or EC) meter, which measures the amount of salts in the nutrient solution. The ideal EC for strawberries is between 1.2-1.5. The low salt requirements of strawberries can make them problematic for gardeners who want to grow a variety of crops in their system. The higher EC levels preferred by other plants causes a reduced yield for strawberries.
Strawberry plants grow best within a PH of 5.5-6.8. This is measured using an inexpensive PH tester kit. Elevated or reduced PH levels are corrected by adding a PH adjustor to the nutrient solution.
A good water to air ratio in your solution keeps plants thriving, so an air pump and stone are useful extras to consider.
Strawberry plants are sun lovers, so bombard them with as much light as possible to guarantee a fantastic harvest. At least 12 hours of light per day is best for your crop. Placing your plants in an area with good natural light will help, but for best results, grow lights will give your yield a much-needed boost.
The ideal temperature for strawberries is 18-25 degrees. If the environment is too cold, the plants won’t grow, and even flowers that have already formed buds can become dormant if not kept adequately warm. Conversely, if the temperature in your system is too high, flowering will be inhibited.
Strawberry plants are susceptible to mould and mildew in high humidity. Prevent this by using a dehumidifier, or by placing a bowl of bicarbonate of soda near your hydroponic garden. Bicarbonate of soda releases carbon dioxide when damp, so it further enhances the growth of your strawberry plants. Win-win!
Chilling your strawberry plants at certain points in the growth cycle encourages vigorous leafing and flowering. Each variety of strawberry has its own chilling specifications, so be sure to check the individual requirements of your species beforehand.
From Seedlings to Strawberries
Once you’re familiar with the basics, it’s time to dig in and get your hands dirty!
Plug it In!
The planting process is the same, regardless of whether you’re working with plants or runners. Plantlets are extremely delicate so take great care when transplanting them to avoid damaging their fragile roots.
Remove the plant from its container and shake or tap gently to dislodge any soil or other matter from the roots and stalk. Tender rootlets are very prone to drying out during the planting process, so a quick 15-minute soak in cold water will give them a much-needed lift.
If your system requires a growing medium, it should be pre-soaked in PH balanced water for at least 30 minutes prior to planting. Media should only cover the roots of your plantlet; the crown should always be exposed to light.
Any runners that sprout in the first 2-3 years of planting should be pruned back as they put a huge strain on the plants energy reserve. Allow time for your plant to become healthy and strong.
Premature flower blooms often appear before the strawberry plant is strong enough to bear the weight of the fruit. If this happens before your plant spreads to 10-12 inches round, the flowers should be cut back before the fruit grows.
Unlike traditional gardening where plants are pollinated naturally by bees, birds and other insects, hydroponically grown vegetation needs to be manually pollinated. This is because of the controlled growing environment. If you fancy a supply of home produced honey, you could consider hosting a hive of bees which can then be used to pollinate your flowers. However, if you are faint of heart, hand pollination might be more appealing to you. This can be done easily by tapping the flowers gently to dislodge the pollen into the atmosphere, or by using a small fan.
Good air flow in your growing environment is essential to avoid mildew. Ensuring the crown of your plant isn’t submerged in the growing medium will help to prevent crown rot.
Keep an eye out for any signs of nutrient deficiency. Yellowing leaves, depressed yields and underdeveloped berries are signs that your plants aren’t getting the correct balance of nutrients.
The Great Harvest
Depending on the variety of strawberry that you are growing, the fruit will be ready for harvest 4-5 weeks after the first flowers open. When strawberries reach a consistency between firm and soft, and have a uniform red colour, then they can be picked. Once you have the green light to harvest, simply pick and enjoy! It couldn’t be easier!