14 April 2000

Winter strawbs as succulent as summer ones

A taste of summer comes early on Polehouse Farm

as Tessa Gates discovered when she met fruit

grower Peter Wensak

THERE is something slightly surreal about eating wonderful English strawberries fresh from the plant when it is bitterly cold and sleeting heavily – in April.

However, the vagaries of weather and season hold no sway in the climate-controlled glasshouses of Polehouse Farm, Lawford, Essex. Here, strawberries crop from late March until Christmas and they have that same intense flavour and texture we expect from the fruit that traditionally reaches the shops in June.

"We try to avoid cropping in June," says Peter Wensak, who took over Polehouse Farm from his father Eugene about 15 years ago. At that time they specialised in leafy salads, with round lettuce being their biggest crop. Then about 10 years ago Peter was approached by a marketing group who wanted him to grow soft fruit off-season. He started with strawberries in grow-bags and raspberries in long cane pots – and admits he made a hash of it.

"But we learned and now we produce purely strawberries under glass and we think ours is probably the earliest English crop," says Peter, who supplies Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury and Safeway. "Elsanta is the variety most favoured by the supermarkets and if they could get it they would take it all year."

Environmental computers constantly monitor the crops, adjusting temperature and humidity, feed, water and carbon dioxide levels. Lighting too is controlled and March nights see some very early dawns as winter days are extended to fool the plants into flowering as the "days" get longer.

In the 5ha (12.5 acres) of glasshouses 40 hives of bees take care of pollination, while natural predators control aphids, thrips and red spider so the fruit remains pesticide-free. Sulphur rock is allowed to evaporate for two or three hours at night to deter mildew spores from getting a hold on the plants, thereby negating the need for chemical sprays. "We grow the plants in modules so we cannot be classed as organic – you have to grow plants direct in the soil for that classification – but chemicals would be an 11th hour measure for us."

&#42 Grow-bag modules

The plants are grown in modules, pots and containers but the most successful method is the grow-bag module – 50,000 plastic bags containing peat are used each year. "We have to look at the environmental aspect of this as we only use them once. On our Norfolk farm we give the grow-bags away free to gardeners. Here we spread the peat on the fields," says Peter, who also grows a 60-day outdoor strawberry crop for picking in July and August. For this the strawberries are planted out in late May and June and once picking is finished the plants are destroyed.

"The plants are harder to establish in May and June but if you plant them earlier they will always crop in June. That is the norm for strawberries," says Peter, who is a member of the NFU soft fruit committee.

More unusual than your "normal" strawberry is one that Peter is trialling at his Norfolk farm. He describes it as small, round and white with a latticed skin. "When you look closely at it, at the bottom of each tiny lattice it is red," he says. It sounds exquisite and would no doubt prove very popular with chefs but at present it is Elsanta that is the consumers favourite.

&#42 Twice a week

Peters early crop was being picked twice a week when Farmlife called but soon the plants will be producing fruit at the rate of 5kg/m (10lb/yd) so dont wait until June to taste an English strawberry – try some now instead of the imported varieties that find their way to the shops at this time of year. One bite and summer isnt quite so far away.

Early starter: Picking started in late March in Peter Wensaks glasshouses and soon the plants will yield 5kg/m of fruit.