Small strawberries, big taste

Alpine strawberries are simple to grow and taste oh-so-sweet.

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I harvested my first alpine strawberries of the season this weekend – and what a sweet milestone it was.

I love all berries – blueberries and raspberries especially – and I don’t disdain those big red strawberries in the grocery store (or even better, from the local farmers’ market). But there’s something special about the little alpines.

The taste is delightful – a mouthful of flavor concentrated in a tiny package. And, unlike regular strawberries, they don’t produce runners, so they don’t require much space, special methods of planting, or any ongoing care year after year.

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I first discovered them years ago in a White Flower Farm catalog, where they were referred to as fraises des bois, which sounds much better than plain old strawberries any day.

For some reason, I had bought a strawberry pot that spring and had this idea I’d grow strawberries in it. So I ordered a packet of seeds, planted them in a flat, and they germinated and grew.

I was able to harvest berries that same year – all through the summer and into fall, which is one of their nicest characteristics, I think.

I’m pretty sure my little plants never made it into the strawberry pot – I admire how the pots look in magazine photographs, but they always seem to take more effort than I want to devote to them.

Instead, I planted the alpine strawberries in hanging baskets and in a flower bed among some new perennials. They were nice mounded plants – great for edging – that looked attractive and produced fruit about the size of wild berries and oh-so-sweet.

I’ve been a big fan ever since. Here in Boston, I buy plants every spring from an organic herb grower at the twice-weekly farmers’ market not far from where I live. (Actually, for you running buffs, the market is next to the finish line for the Boston Marathon.)

The grower charges the same for good-size strawberry plants as for four-inch pots of common herbs, so I consider them a bargain.

They couldn’t be simpler to grow: Give them sun, decent soil containing plenty of organic matter, and water if there's no rain. If you grow them in the ground, add some mulch. In containers, you’ll want to fertilize occasionally.

Bird netting might also be necessary.

My alpine strawberries have always been the red kind. There’s also a white (yellow) type that’s supposed to remind your taste buds of pineapple. It’s on my “someday” list of plants I want to try.

These berry plants are hardy perennials that will return year after year. The reason I start over each spring is that I’m an urban gardener who grows mostly in pots and I simply don’t have much space to store things out of the cold and snow over winter.

You’ll measure your harvest by the handful, but that’s OK. You believe the adage about good things coming in small packages, right? If you don’t now, you will after you’re grown fraises des bois.

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