(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 26, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

I love the multi-tasking capability of edible ornamentals! Alpine strawberries, Fragaria vesca, provide luscious garden snacks for both me and the birds (depending on who is quicker). Their dark green foliage and white flowers make an attractive, tidy edging along my side walkway. I also use them as "shoes & socks" plants to hide the less attractive bases of some of my lilies and phlox.

edging of green clumps of Alpine Strawberries along my brick walkwayLike wild strawberries, Alpine Strawberries are tiny. Without the help of a troop of pixies, you'll never pick enough for a pie. But the sweet intensity of flavor in these little morsels is unbeatable. They're one of my favorite snacks as I'm working in the garden, and every kid "in the know" rushes right to them to check for ripe red berries. Even half-ripe berries are delicious, if a little tart. When a berry comes right off into your fingers with only the slightest tug, you know it'll be perfectly ripe and unbelievably sweet.

Unlike most regular strawberries, alpines are easily grown from seed. Cold treatment or cold stratification is recommended, and there are two easy ways to accomplish this. When starting seeds inside under lights, I followed the instructions that came with my seeds [1] and chilled them for 3 weeks in the freezer before sowing. Winter sowing is another method I've used very successfully to germinate alpine strawberry seeds.

If you want flats of plants for a border but don't have room to start so many inside, I recommend winter sowing. Find a container big enough to allow you to sow rows of seeds. I like the foil roasting pans from the dollar store, with the clear plastic lids. Poke holes in the pan and the lid, fill the pan with moist potting mix, and sow seeds in rows about 2 inches apart.

foil roaster pan with somewhat rootbound 1 year old seedlings of Alpine strawberryBy spring, you'll have rows of sturdy little seedlings. Rather than planting them out into the garden, transplant them into flats of 48 cells or into 2 inch pots. You can break the row of seedlings into little clumps rather than trying to tease apart every little plant. Strawberry plants have a "crown," a central point from which the leaves emerge in a circular pattern. When you transplant, keep the crown at or above the soil surface; don't bury it.

When the seedlings have filled their pots with roots, plant them into the garden. Or you can grow them on in pots over the summer and plant them out in fall. If you start seedlings 10 weeks before your last frost date, inside under lights, you'll probably get flowers and fruit the first year. Winter sown seedlings may not produce fruit until their second summer. They're worth the wait!

blooms of oriental hyacinth 'Woodstock' next to emerging new foliage of Alpine Strawberry plantAlpine strawberries don't produce runners like other strawberry varieties, but they may self-sow. Volunteers transplant easily. In fact, even mature plants can be moved to other locations without breaking their stride.

Over time, a plant may also grow into a clump. I've heard the clumps can be divided into individual crowns, but I like the fuller look. I'd rather grow more plants by sowing saved seeds than by breaking up my older ones. Each year, the berries on my plants seem to be a little larger than the year before. To me, that's enough reason to leave my older, established plants alone to do their thing.

I've grown out several different Alpine Strawberry cultivars. Between sowing, transplanting, and moving the plants to their final position, I lost track of which was which. The differences between the varieties seemed pretty subtle to me, at least when dealing with varieties with green foliage and red berries.

green and white leaves and red berry on alpine strawberry VariegataHowever, more distinctive cultivars do exist. Alpine Strawberries with gold or ivory colored berries and plants with variegated leaves can add unique notes to your garden. Pinetree Seeds claims birds will ignore the ripe berries of ‘Yellow Wonder'. I think birds often learn faster than we'd like, but I think the berries will be lovely regardless, so I'm giving them a try. Last year, I grew out a pinch of seeds for ‘Variegata'. The foliage makes an attractive accent at the corner of my walkway, and I'm looking forward to tasting the berries this year.

Alpine strawberries make good pot plants, also. I've put them in window boxes, strawberry jars (of course), even in 4 inch clay pots. My nieces and nephew have had a big foam-walled container of them on their front porch for several years now, and they overwinter just fine in zone 5. The kids share out the berries very fairly, making sure none are picked before the peak of ripeness. My brother says it might be the best plant I've ever given them.

Alpine strawberry plant showing folaige, bloom, green and red-ripe fruitEspecially if your space is limited, you'll appreciate plants that do double duty by providing something more than a pretty leaf or bloom to admire. Planting edible ornamentals is a way to have your cake and eat it, too! Alpine strawberries are a wonderful edible ornamental and a great addition to any garden with a bit of sun. One taste, and you'll be glad you gave them a try.

[1] Seeds are available from several sources. I bought my original packet from Pinetree Garden Seeds.

Photos by Jill Nicolaus.