GENE LOGSDON: First Strawberries

The Contrary Farmer

I was bent over a book in the office when Carol waltzed in and stuck a berry basket under my nose. I almost jumped out of my chair. I was staring at some of the nicest strawberries I’ve ever laid eyes on—  the ones in the photo. No sight is more glorious to me than the first strawberries of the year. All the long cold winter and all the worries of the world vanish and I once more am assured that “all’s right in the world” or would be if we could get rid of the overpopulation of deer which love strawberry leaves.

Since we have not had much to brag about from our berry patch in recent years, and since these berries came from the same plants that so struggled to grow all last summer, I have no idea why they are so nice. I was tempted to tear the patch up. That is what makes gardening interesting. It keeps exuding mystery that no amount of experience can completely anticipate or explain. After growing strawberries all my life, I still hesitate when someone asks me questions about how to do it. My standard answer to all things agricultural is “it depends.”

I am especially mystified by the many rules on how to handle runners, those vines that grow out from the mother plant and make new plants. I don’t think there is any one correct way. “It depends.” It is fun to read older books about growing strawberries because in the sweet by and by, people didn’t just order plants to set it but often grew their own. This meant rooting or layering the runners which required knowing the habits of runners or rather, as I have learned,  knowing the habits of humans. Most of the instruction is really more about making easier ways to pick the fruit or control weeds rather than any particular knowledge about the botany of the plants.

Most of you know this, but let me run on here about runners. A strawberry plant starts sending them out right after the berries get ripe. There are several ways to handle them:  1) Don’t do anything at all except implore the strawberry gods to look after them (my favorite);  2) Allow several runners to root about 12 to 15 inches apart and then pinch off any that grow later including runners than grow from the new runner plants;  3) Pinch off all the runners so that the mother plant puts its energy into producing more berries the next year (I wonder if this is folklore, not science);  4)  An early method, no longer deemed correct, was to pinch off the first two runners and then let the next two root, the idea being to put the plant’s early energy into the mother plant, not the runner— probably more folklore;  5) When you want to start a new patch, set the first four runner plants to root or layer in little pots set in the ground. By August they will have rooted well and can be cut from the mother plant and moved to the new patch location. Or don’t use pots and move the plants the following spring. Set them about a foot apart in any row configuration desired, with enough room between the rows for pickers and for cultivation. Rows are a human invention. Strawberries do just fine if allowed to spread across the face of the earth undeterred like wild ones did in road ditches before weedkillers.

Broadly speaking, the year after a runner plant roots, is its most productive year. A three year old patch will produce a little less (but still enough for a non-commercial gardener) and will be hard to keep weeded. And all that runner pinching is more tedious than penny pinching. The main reason for moving a patch is because of the influx of weeds which you can only pull out by hand. Just try pulling violets, for example, by hand. The roots get so entwined with the strawberry roots as to produce a heavy infestation of cuss words.

I was tired of moving runner plants to a new location and tired of buying plants every spring, especially since I’m not sure  of the name of the variety I now have and want to keep. I bought some old Senator Dunlap plants years ago and liked the berries very much. Good color, good aroma, good taste, brown rot resistant and did not throw a lot of runners . But when I ordered this variety a second time, I got something quite different, so, not knowing which was which, I hastened to save the plants still growing from the old patch and allowed them to throw and set as many runners as possible, like the way wild ones advance in unmowed meadows.

And so I am into the fourth year of this very slow spread of my mystery variety. The patch has grown to about six feet wide (with space to walk down the middle) and 30 feet long and dishearteningly sparse. Just don’t look like real strawberry rows. However that sparseness may be the very reason why the plants are bearing quite a few nice big berries this year. If the  rows were thicker, like I’m used to, I think the berries would be smaller from overcrowding. I am going to keep on with this slow fumbling way to match my slow, fumbling body, pulling weeds assiduously and trying to get every runner to root on its own unless they get too thick.

The only sure thing I’ve learned from growing strawberries is to keep the patch small, so that hand weeding and runner management and covering to protect against late frost and the deer aren’t too exhausting or time consuming. And work with mid-season varieties. Those early, late and ever-bearing kinds aren’t worth the extra work in my opinion. With midseason kinds, you almost always get berries for most of the season anyway and remember, the raspberries are coming right along and then cherries and blackberries and elderberries and for some of you blueberries and then second crop raspberries. I’ve said otherwise in earlier books, but I now believe that managing for a small strawberry patch with big berries is a whole lot less work and more enjoyment than a big crop of smaller berries.