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Mathew – Keelings Strawberry Grower

At Keelings, we’re proud to say that we produce the earliest strawberries in Ireland! Although our Irish strawberries are available in March, you might be surprised to learn that for us, each new Irish strawberry season actually begins in July. At the end of July, we plant our glasshouse with fresh plants, and from those, we pick an autumn crop around mid-September to the end of November. This autumn crop has a little holiday over the Christmas period, but it’s back to work at the start of February, when we promote growing again. It is this winter prep that leads to our spring crop and provides us with strawberries from mid-March until the end of June. After this period, the glasshouse is emptied, and the process starts all over again!

But what are a grower’s best friends throughout this process? Read on for some of our growing practices!

1. Growing Conditions

In addition to glasshouses, we also have tunnels on our farm. The tunnels team begin planting at the end of February, and through a lot of hard work and plenty of calculations, they ensure we have a steady supply of Irish strawberries from spring through to late autumn. Both the glasshouse and tunnels teams work closely together. The glasshouse team look to produce fruit as early and as late in the year as quality will allow, while the tunnels team look to fill the gap in between with a steady supply of high-quality berries.

2. Flower Inspections

Everyone on the farm is always looking at the flowers both on and even inside the plants—it’s an obsession! Before we plant our strawberry plants, the height of the flower is studied under a microscope. A higher flower will come out earlier than a deeper flower. By following the flowers before they have emerged, we are able to adjust our planting times or make decisions as to when we will push the crop with a higher temperature (in the glasshouse). Once we have established a starting date by analysing the depth of the flower, we are able to predict when the first viable flowers will emerge, using average light levels and outside temperatures realised historically. Once the first flower has emerged and it’s showing good pollen, the bumble bees should already be in place, which brings us to our third helper on the farm.

3. Busy Bees

Bumble bees and honey bees are integral members of our team. These bees are native to Ireland, and by pollinating our crop, they help us to produce bigger, sweeter berries. Let’s start with the bumble bee. Using what’s called ‘buzz pollination’, they grab onto the flower and move their wings rapidly. This vibration causes the pollen to dislodge and gather onto the bee. Honey bees, on the other hand, are not fussy about the flowers they visit, so they do not have a specialised method like the bumble bee. When it comes to pollination, a strawberry flower may only need one visit from a bumble bee, whereas it will need multiple visits from a honey bee before pollination is realised.

With so many strawberries to grow, it’s important that we correctly determine the number of bees that are needed. We can calculate this based on the number of flowers per square metre, and by looking at the pollen left behind on our flowers, we can assess how active the bees are. If we don’t have enough hives, too much pollen is left on the open flowers inhibiting berry growth. However, if we have too many hives, the bumble bees will bite their way into the closed flowers, damaging any chance of a berry forming later. As the honey bees on our farm are wild, they’ll come out when they want and go home when they want. We tend to leave them in a nice protected corner of a field for the entire season and let them do their thing.

So, there you have it—three practices that help us growers harvest us the earliest strawberries in Ireland!