Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Strawberries, the Ultimate Food Crop

Strawberries are perennial plants that reproduce primarily by runners.  Each year they shoot out a stalk, called a runner, that touches the dirt and begins to grow the roots and leaves of a new plant.  This type of reproduction means that a small planting of strawberries can expand into a large strawberry patch in just a few years.  Such simple reproduction also means that strawberry plants tend to be one of the least expensive fruits to purchase and grow.  In May of 2009 I bought a dozen bare root strawberry plants for $5, by 2011 I had a 10 foot by 2 foot bed filled with over forty plants that produced 2-6 cups of berries every other day from June to mid-July.

Once established a strawberry patch can be an excellent producer of these tasty berries.  They are very hardy plants that don't take a lot of care.  In fact, my patch of berries doesn't generally receive any water between the first week of June and last of August.  Summers here are very dry, though not generally very hot.  If they looked thirsty I would water them, but haven't needed to since the spring they were planted.  My strawberries are planted in a space that was mulched with red lava rock, they seem to do well with the rock as a mulch to keep out weeds and shade their roots.  Once a year, in early spring, I clean out all of the dead leaves and remove any sickly looking plants.  The dead and dying plant matter can harbor molds, fungi, and slugs, so I make sure to keep the ground around the plants clean.  I also slug bait just as the first blossoms come in to keep the slugs in check until harvest is over.  Supposedly a strawberry bed should be dug up and a new one planted every 4 years or so, since my bed is only 3 years old I haven't yet done that.  I may leave it in place until I actually see a decline in the health of the plants or fruits.  Since I remove all the dying plants and let any new runners (so long as they stay in the bed) grow, my strawberry plants are constantly being renewed.  I am not sure if the soil's fertility will be affected though, and that may be the only reason to move the strawberry patch in the future.
One day's harvest, notice only some of the berries are fully ripe.

One thing I have learned about growing strawberries is that you actually should pick the berries the day before they are perfect.  I have found that if I leave a not-quite-ripe berry on the plant and come back the next morning it will be perfectly ripe... and have a HUGE hole through it where a slug beat me to the harvest.  I don't know how, but the slugs have a nose for when a berry has reached its peak of perfection and I just can't seem to beat them.  Instead I pick the berries just less than ripe, in the end this serves me well since a perfectly ripe berry will turn to sweet mush after being frozen.  Also strawberry jam made with all-ripe berries is almost too sweet, less ripe berries tend to make a more flavorful and less sweet jam.  I'm not saying that I pick them while they're still green; they are red, but a light red rather than the darker rich red of a fully ripe berry.  Also, if berries have over-ripened, been chomped by something, or have mold on them; remove them and dispose of in compost.  Berries shouldn't be left on the plant to go bad, they will grow mold and that will spread to the new berries still forming.  Remove any damaged fruits as you do your harvesting and toss into a bucket for composting.
Strawberry patch viewed from the gate, they are slowly invading the empty lot next door.
The one downside to having your own strawberry patch is just how sick of picking strawberries you'll be before they are done each year.  My children are terrible strawberry pickers too, they miss any berries that aren't right on the edge, so it is up to me to pick every couple days or let the berries go to waste.  For the first week or two that's not so bad, but 6 weeks into it you may begin to wonder why you didn't plant them in beds 4 feet off the ground!  You also do have to be somewhat careful about planting strawberries right alongside your annuals.  They spread and could fill up an entire garden bed that was meant to hold tomatoes if you let them, to keep them in check, trim off any wandering runners once they develop a root and a few leaves.  Give these starts to a friend to start their own patch with.

In conclusion:
-Strawberries will spread, keep runners in check to avoid being overrun.
-Keep bed clean to avoid the most common issues with strawberries: slugs and molds.
-Slug bait and harvest early if slugs are a problem
-Mulch beds with something that won't biodegrade to protect roots and fruits without being shelter for pests; black plastic, pebbles, lava rock.
-Take a Tylenol and keep on picking because by next May you will really be wishing you'd frozen more of these fabulous fruits.

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