Sunday, October 19, 2008

Summer Pleasures - Strawberries

This morning, I was checking on the garden. As usual, my one year old trudged into the strawberry patch. He sobbed as I tried to explain that the strawberries were over for the year. He couldn't understand what happened to his wonderful all-you-can-eat buffet that he visited daily for almost a month! As I was thinking about how much we have enjoyed having our own strawberry patch, I thought I'd share our experience, in case someone has a desire to plant their own strawberry patch and was unsure how to begin.

Choosing a Variety - We chose a variety called something similar to All Star.For a very wide selection, check out a seed catalog or online. One of the most popular varieties is Early Glow. It is the first to ripen in the spring and is a nice dark red through to the middle. For many people, it is the preferred variety for eating and jelly. Other varieties are compared to Early Glow by listing how many days later they ripen then Early Glow. We chose to NOT plant Early Glow because after the first picking the size diminishes rapidly to a very small berry. Also, late spring frost often hurts Early Glow worse then later varieties. We have been very pleased with our variety. It produces nice size berries for up to three weeks. If you have the space, you can extend your season by planting two or more varieties.

Planting- Strawberry plants usually come in a bunch of 25 plants which cost something like $10 or $15. Plant them as early as possible in the spring, usually in April. Plant each tiny plant about a foot apart. Spread the roots out over a little hill of soft dirt or compost. Then cover the roots with soft soil being careful not to bury the crown deeply. The plants will grow quickly and send out lots of runners. You can encourage them to keep in the row by pushing the runners where you want them.

Care- The first year, pick off all the blossoms so that all the energy can go into the plants, roots, and runners. If it is a dry summer, be sure to water the plants. Drip irrigation works best. I understand that strawberry production depends a lot on the moisture levels the summer before. In the fall, we cover the plants loosely with straw. In early spring, when they start showing green leaves, we pull the straw off the plants and put it beside the row for mulch. It is really nice to have straw to walk on in wet springs like this year. After the berry picking season is over, we mow them off in July. Not everyone does this but I think the goal is to cut back on disease. We also run a tiller along the patch to neaten up the rows. Keep it well watered and it will quickly send out runners and fill out the row again. A patch will last for three or four years before it stops producing heavily. To rejuvenate an old patch, rototill down the middle of the row. You will be removing the oldest plants. The younger plants on either side of where you tilled will send out runners and build a new row which should again last several years. In this way, you shouldn't have to buy new plants for a long time, unless they get diseased. In which case, it is best to start over with buying brand new plants (make sure they are certified disease free) and plant in a new place that hasn't had strawberries for several years.

Pests - Our patch has been hurt badly by some creature eating off most of the leaves from about a third of the patch. We assume it was deer. The plants are recovering but didn't produce berries this year. We also had a lot of help from robins. We tried hanging up foil pans but it didn't seem to deter them. Since we had more then we needed, I didn't worry much about them but it is frustrating to find a huge berry with a big peck in the side! The other option would have been to cover with netting.The wet weather brought some tiny black beetles but since I hate to spray, I decided to just share with them, too!

I think strawberries are one of the best garden investments. For very little cash and work, you get a very good return! Our patch isn't large but we picked 42 quart this year, despite our pest problems and not counting the hand fulls that were eaten straight out in the garden. At a local pick-your-own patch price of $1.75 a quart, we saved over $70.00 this year alone. We were able to share many of those with our neighbors, giving us a welcomed opportunity to interact. Very little space is needed for a patch of strawberries. I have seen people planting them in pots or half barrels. I heard of one city family who planted strawberries in the middle of their driveway between the tire tracks! I doubt any of us will need to get that desperate! Of course, strawberries do take some time. My patch is next to the swing set so I weed occasionally while watching the children play. Probably our worst problem is the thistles. We don't call our place Thistleberry Hollow for no reason! When the time comes to pick, I save a lot of time by not needing to get a babysitter and drive somewhere and pick. For us, it is well worth having them right in our yard. And there is nothing like watching your one year old return to his sand box with a huge strawberry in each hand and strawberry juice dripping down his chin!

(written in June, 08)

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