Planning season and strawberry fields forever

April 2013 018
It’s that time of year when the work on the farm is slowly ramping up. It is planning time, seeding time, mulching time, tool-cleaning and sharpening time, compost making time, and organizing time. But it is also weeding time, watering time, and time to make sure the basics are in: the fence is up, the watering system is ready, the tractor is maintained. Soon it will be time to cut down the grass, till up the soil, transplant the first round of plants from the greenhouse, and seed the first round of seeds in the soil.

December 2012 075

Already, we’ve started to cut back some of the very thickly growing cover crop to make room for about 700 strawberry plants that will be going into the ground within 2 weeks. Most of these plants were collected last year from runners that grew from the first round of planting, which were collected from runners from the previous year’s crop. We’re slowly expanding our strawberry area and hope to in a year or so have about half the 1/2-acre plot be strawberries.

Emphasis here is on the word “slow”. I really liked Joel Salatin’s Dad’s saying about how “it’s so easy to drive up ahead of your headlights”. With farming, that seems like such an apt metaphor, because the tendency in the beginning of the season is to over plant and generally bite off more than you can chew. It happens so often. But with living things that have specific needs, sometimes the ball gets dropped and an entire batch of something doesn’t make it into the ground, or doesn’t get weeded, watered, or even harvested! There just isn’t enough time to do it all, sometimes. Plus, on a farm, there are so many unknowns and nothing is certain. It’s very easy to sit down with a piece of paper, surrounded by 4 walls and a roof, and draw out a plan for the farm. Even better, make some spreadsheets, or use some fancy farm planning software, and soon enough, golly – that farm plan sure does look polished and crisp. Its gonna be a good year! But its a whole different world out there in the wilderness of bugs and slugs and soil and ice, floods, searing sun, high winds, raccoons, possums, birds, deer, and gophers. Where it’s so often simply a combination of good timing, good luck, and experience (in that order) that makes it work.

With something like strawberries, its hard to invest lots of space, time, money and other more intangibles like hope and excitement, only to find that they don’t do so well in our soil or that they get a disease and die, or that we can’t sell them because they’ve all got little chunks eaten out of them by bugs. Luckily, we’ve been trying a whole lot of different things and although we have had some problems with strawberries (as in its not hot enough and they don’t do really well in our climate and the slugs love them as much as we do), we like them nevertheless and it seems like a thing worth dedicating some more space to. Also, it is well known that after about the second year, their yields really do take off for about 2 years. We haven’t even surpassed one year yet with our strawberry patch, so this will be new territory for us with the strawberries.

We spent a lot of effort just deciding which variety would be most suitable. Prior to about 10-15 years ago, there was only really one type of strawberry – what are known as June bearing. And then someone at a university in the midwest got the idea to breed this type with a wild variety and the “everbearing” strawberry was born. The great thing about the June bearing varieties is the unbeatable taste – there’s not much comparison. But they all ripen within 2-3 weeks and then they’re done for the rest of the season. The everbearing varieties, on the other hand, still taste amazing and bear at a more gentle rate and for months instead of for a couple of weeks. So we went with the everbearing variety and these seem to be right for us.

We’ve trialed the “Cameron” variety, the “Seascape” variety and the “Albion” variety. The Albion seemed to do the best, so we’ve stuck with them. The others were tasty, but not as vigorous. The first season’s fruit of the Seascape was incredible and delicious, but it didn’t bear as much over a period of time and was more similar to the June bearing. Albion had a tart and sweet flavor, was resistant to most disease (we didn’t get any diseases…keeping our fingers crossed), and the plants were overall very hardy. We do tend to not pamper our plants, so hardiness is a very good attribute. One problem for us though, is slugs. We tend to pick the strawberries a bit on the tart side because if we wait just 6-8 hours, they’ll be slug food. Somehow, the slugs have really good taste in strawberries, and like them best when they are ripe – just like us. We also try to pick them in the morning. Supposedly, they last longest if picked early in the morning, and they taste sweetest when picked mid-day (although they don’t last very long). Since they still taste delicious in the morning and they last longer, we go with this method. Additionally, this year we may experiment with a groundbreaking new method for protecting them from mold: hot water. If sprayed with hot water, strawberries (and other berries) will last several days longer due to the decrease in molds and bacteria on the berries. I wonder if the hot water washes off the berries delicious taste? We’ll have to do some taste tests this year to find out.

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