ISSUE 39  |  Belgian Masters

Tiny Gardens: 66 Square Feet for Alpine Strawberries in NYC

October 03, 2014 1:30 PM

BY Marie Viljoen

October…strawberries? That would have surprised me, too, before I grew them myself on a tiny terrace in New York City.

Read on for step-by-step instructions to make a strawberry shrub cocktail called the Ingrid Bergman:

Photography by Marie Viljoen for Gardenista.

Several years ago I bought two strawberry plants at GRDN, a pretty garden shop in Brooklyn. The cultivar name was Fern, and, said the label, these were “everbearing” strawberries. That sounded good. Standard strawberries will bear fruit in early summer only. But as a gardener with space issues, I ask a lot from a single plant. More is more.

Above: I had never grown strawberries before and it sounded hard. Talk of mounding, and rows, and straw, and runners, and renovating…? All I had was some small pots, a lot of sun, a small terrace and the desire to grow my own. Turns out that’s all you need to enjoy fresh berries till hard frost.

Above: My plants were challenged from the start. Because of space constraints, I housed them in terra cotta pots no more than 8 inches in diameter. I put them in full sun on my terrace edge, and a month later I was eating the first ripe fruit. Soon, the plants made new flowers, and about four weeks later, more strawberries. And so it went, till the pots froze and snow fell. And they returned in the spring, with no extra protection. They weren’t kidding about the everbearing. 

Above: Soon I was picking handfuls. And in high summer the plants sent out runners–long, tender feelers with a tuft of leaves at the tip, searching for new land to occupy. Wherever they touched down they set down roots. I dug them up and potted these offspring in even smaller 6-inch pots. 

Above: Within a year I had a small strawberry farm, blooming into November. Eventually the reproduction by runners got so out of hand that I was sending the extras to friends, by mail. The parent plants do get tired after a few years, but by then their offspring have risen to the challenge. Life lesson?

Above: Then we moved from a sunny top floor in Brooklyn to a shadier parlor-level Harlem. Uh-oh. I had a larger terrace, now, but with just four hours of direct sun, Fern languished. I sent the sulking survivors to sunnier gardens. But the surprise performer was the other strawberry I had been growing all this time, an Alpine cultivar called Ruegen.

Above: Its pretty little flowers and fruit grow on arching stems, and the plants self seed freely, if you allow a few ripe fruit to fall. It is easy to acquire a collection after a year. And you can smell a ripe berry feet away.  Shaped like scarlet teardrops, their flavor is intense. 

Above: Just a couple of Alpine strawberries in some creamy yogurt with slick of maple syrup, or infused in a shrub to sip at sunset gives full strawberry satisfaction. Or, if you are like my French husband, you like them best with a splash of red wine. 

Above: To grow strawberries in pots, you’ll need three things. One, give them as much sun as possible. In horticultural terms, “full sun” means six hours of direct sunlight. This is ideal, though my Brooklyn strawberries lucked out and soaked up eight-plus hours.

The Alpine strawberries, above–natives of woodlands–can handle less sun but will never thrive in full shade.

Two: super-drainage. Water that runs in must be able to run out. Wet feet mean a wet crown, and a wet crown means slow, rotting death.

Three: Food, please. I used a weekly seaweed solution when watering and a monthly application of organic granules, starting in April, right through October.

Above: Strawberry Shrub aka The Ingrid Berman

Here is a shrub I devised that makes me very happy. If you’re a hard core fermenter, you’ll make your own vinegar from scratch, but a good red wine vinegar infused with strawberries is quicker by several months and works very well.

My friend Jennifer Hess christened the drink an Ingrid Bergman. 

Strawberry Shrub

Ingredients:

For the vinegar:

  • 1 cup good red wine vinegar
  • ½ cup ripe strawberries

Mash the berries in a bowl, cover with the vinegar, and leave overnight. Strain, and bottle the vinegar. It lasts indefinitely in the refrigerator (the leftover berries are good stirred into a red wine pan glaze for duck breasts).

For the Ingrid Bergman:

  • 1 ounce strawberry vinegar
  • 1 ounce St. Germain
  • 3 ounces gin

Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker, add ice, and shake like mad for 15 seconds. Pour the vivid pink drink into a coupe, or 5-ounce glass. 

N.B.: Read more about Marie’s edible gardening adventures on her blog, 66 Square Feet (Plus), and in her book, 66 Square Feet–A Delicious Life (Abrams: 2013).

See more of Marie’s new Harlem garden in Garden Visit: 66 Square Feet (Plus). And for more of her tips for growing big in tiny spaces, see 10 Secrets to Growing an Urban Balcony Garden.