Friday, May 13, 2011

Strawberries Make Us Happy


When my two-year-old, Clara, came into the house with bloody, scraped knees from playing outside with her sister, Ella, 5, I asked Ella what happened to her.  Clara was happy and unconcerned about her knees, and no self-respecting toddler allows such an opportunity for tears and attention from mama to pass unused unless there are extenuating circumstances.  Ella, ever the helpful big sister, said, “She fell down and I gave her two strawberries and that happied her up!”  They had been out raiding the strawberry patch in my garden, and apparently, one strawberry was not enough to stop the tears, but two berries did the trick.

One of my favorite childhood memories is picking strawberries from my mother’s patch, but her patch became neglected over the years and I remember it producing a few small berries.  When I first planted strawberries in my garden, although I followed the directions on the package, my plants did not produce many berries either.  Strawberry plants can take up a lot of space in the garden, and if I gave them the room, I wanted them to produce.

The parents of my best friend from high school have a commercial turkey farm and a U-Pick strawberry farm in the Upstate.  Their berries are big and numerous, and I asked their advice.  They have a handy source of strawberries’ favorite nutrient, nitrogen, in the turkey litter, and they spread turkey litter on the fields before they plant the berries.  I began putting manure, heavily, on my berries, and now I have large, numerous ones too.

If you apply too much nitrogen to most fruiting plants, they will grow beautiful foliage but no fruit.  Strawberries, as well as blueberries and blackberries, need extra nitrogen to produce fruit.  Do not try this with your tomatoes, beans, or squash; you will have beautiful plants but nothing edible.  Strawberries also like acid soil, with a pH of about 5.5-6.5.  Most soils in the Midlands are already acidic; get a soil test if you are not sure about your soil.  Do not apply lime to strawberries unless you know your soil is extremely acidic, and do not put them where tomatoes, potatoes, or peppers have grown in the last several years because they are susceptible to the same diseases.

My strawberry patch is disorganized, but the “proper” way to grow strawberries is to buy new plants every few years, or even every year, and to rotate strawberries as you would any other crop to avoid disease buildup.  I set out my original plants in rows, but because strawberries spread by runners, they have filled in the space between the rows.  In the late fall or winter, I dig out and discard old plants, and I move the new ones that rooted at the end of the runners into spaces vacated by the old ones.  In the winter, before new growth begins, I spread an inch or two of cow manure among the plants and mulch them well.  If I used poultry manure, I would spread it much thinner.  If I had no manure, I would thickly apply organic fertilizer and compost.  I usually apply blood meal or another high-nitrogen organic fertilizer like Black Hen or cottonseed meal after the strawberries stop fruiting.    

The “South Carolina Fruit and Vegetable Book,” by Walter Reeves and Felder Rushing, recommends fertilizing an 8x30 foot area containing 30 plants with 4 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer a week or so before they are planted, and in June and in September.  If soil is sandy, they recommend applying the fertilizer in May, July, and October.  After the first season, they recommend fertilizing the plants in late winter with 4 pounds of 10-10-10.  This is a lot of fertilizer, and it is simpler and better for your plants and soil if you use compost and manure.

I do not intend to move my strawberries unless disease becomes a problem; they are healthy and productive.  My biggest chore is containing the growth and keeping them weeded because it is hard to apply mulch evenly to a disorganized planting.  Snails, slugs, and birds love berries, so I usually have to take precautions against these critters.  If you want to grow strawberries, look in garden centers for them this spring, although it may be a bit late to plant them.  Fall and winter are excellent times to plant them in our area, so look for plants then online and in stores and in the interim, prepare a place for them with lots of compost and manure.     

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