Four Seasons in the Strawberry Patch
A Reflection Over a Season Past
by Ida Livingston of Davis City, IA
As we peer back into childhood through the lens of nostalgia, we remember the sweat without feeling the heat, see the blister without feeling the pain, chuckling at a memory that once was consternation. The passage of time turns mountains into molehills as one season of life slips into the next.
Many of my childhood memories were made in the strawberry patches that my father, Paul Edwards, was gifted at growing. Even for that, he would never eat them. The texture of their seeds was too much and for all the decades that he grew them, and grew them well, I never saw him raise a berry to his mouth. He sure loved to grow them though.
We moved to northwest Ohio when I was nine looking for a fresh start. We had 10 acres onto which Dad built the house, mostly from recycled lumber, windows and even tin salvaged from buildings he had permission to tear down. The barn was built in a similar manner.
Before the house was even up, Dad had planted a large strawberry patch and another for black raspberries. We had chickens, pigs, and after a couple of years, a milk cow. It set the stage for the life we lived.
Every year at the end of May, when school let out, marked the beginning of strawberry season. Our annual Memorial Day family reunion usually ended in a raid of the strawberry patches for the first picking of the season.
Although we had a couple of acres of strawberries, Dad was too particular about his patch to allow a U-pick. So, we picked them all. Every berry that we picked to sell had to be perfect, ready to simply cap and eat, no bug bites or blemishes allowed. Trays loaded with quart boxes piled high with picture perfect berries were carried in and sold off of our front porch. Word spread and the phone rang off the hook calling orders in.
At the season peak, we would be picking over 350 quarts a day. This did not count the culls. With Dad’s standards so high, try as I might (and I tried) I could never pick more than 80 quarts a day by myself, and to make that, it took focus and a long day. If I could count the culls that I picked I could easily have doubled those numbers. Only saleable berries counted.
Culls were literally carried out of the patch by the 5-gallon bucket full. You did not want to leave the culled berries on the plant unpicked. This promoted disease and insect infestation. So, we carried out the berries, sometimes we sold seconds to those who were interested, and we cleaned berries in the evenings until the freezer was full. When the freezer was full, buckets full of culled berries were carried to the pigs. By midseason, the pigs refused to eat them anymore.
Every morning, after chores and breakfast we would pick up our trays and walk out to one of the patches. A common and favorite breakfast this time of year was Strawberry Shortcake topped with milk and/or mashed strawberries.
1 cup sugar
4 cups flour
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. salt
¾ cup butter
2 cups buttermilk
Blend dry ingredients and then cut in the butter until crumbly. Stir in buttermilk. Pour into a greased and floured 9×13 cake pan. Pour in the dough and bake for 30 minutes at 350ºF or until the toothpick inserted comes out clean.
Serve with milk and/or mashed strawberries. To make the mashed strawberries, simply cap and clean the berries before mashing them until they are mashed smooth without lumps. Stir in sweetener of choice to suit your taste.
As the business expanded, some of our friends, Janel and Tiffany Elwood and Solomon and Rebekah Weihrauch, came to help with the picking. This definitely made it more fun. Dad always told us that we could eat as many as we wanted, knowing full well how quickly we would tire of them. We would partner up and pick across from someone on each row. Janel and I would pick out one of the twenty 200-foot-long rows and get started.
The sun smiled down on us and the sweat dripped off on those long June days. It was hard work sure, but with (Edwards) kids, is it ever all work and no play? We were not supposed to throw berries. Who paid attention to that? Only the Weihrauch and Elwood kids.
Every now and then, you would come across a huge berry that was rotten through and through. Carefully picking it so that it does not fall apart prematurely, one would quietly survey who was worthy of such a berry. Some would try for the anonymous delivery, a quick fling followed by instantly pretending to be a busy, ignorant bystander. Others preferred having the credit and would call your name, so you’d look up as you got it on the nose. Duck fast or wear it was the name of that game. Either way, the cull box would be sought, and a flurry of flinging would ensue until Dad cut it short. The day came though when Dad found a berry even he couldn’t resist. A battle engaged and then subsided, breaking the monotony of the work.
We usually had 3 patches to pick, so we did one per day, when we got back to the first patch, it was ripe again. The end of the day was when the patch of the day was finished. Sometimes this was at 2 pm, sometimes at 4. We’d walk in tired and sticky with strawberry stains on our fingers (and hair and clothes), to tally our numbers and then scatter to the chores. We kept track of how many we picked for payday at the end of the week.
Strawberries are a lot of work and picking them is not the beginning of it. Every year Dad would plant a new patch, and every year he would plow under an old one. There would be 3-4 patches at all times. By their last year, overcrowding, disease, and weeds would choke out their productivity. The worst weed in a strawberry patch tends to be a strawberry. They multiply every year until they choke each other out.
So come March, Dad would prepare the ground and order about 1800 plants from either Nourse or Krohne plant farms. He would always get a couple of new varieties to try, but Earliglow and Jewel were his standbys. He grew Honeoye for many years because they are so beautiful, but he eventually quit because they tend to err on the sour side. We typically had 6 or 8 varieties, ranging from early to late to extend our season. We became so familiar with the varieties that when presented with a lone berry, or even leaf, any of us kids could identify what variety it was.
Our property was 10 acres that had been carved out of a cornfield. The land had been farmed to death long before we showed up. Not an earthworm could be found on the place and our first years’ attempts to grow anything languished.
My father was a resourceful man and talked to the local road supervisor at the nearby town of Ada. They worked out a mutually beneficial agreement where the city brought out dump truck loads of the leaves bagged and set out to the curb every fall or the woodchips from storm cleanup. They even emptied the bags for us.
These piles grew 8 to 10 ft tall and nearly spanned the width of the property. These were allowed to compost somewhat and then spread heavily on the fields to be plowed under. The difference was incredible. The strawberry plants grown in this stood taller than my knees. The earth can be healed!
Come April, with the ground prepared, Dad would make hills for rows. We had a heavy clay soil, and strawberry plants do not like wet feet. He would make the hills as high as he could in a practical and reasonable amount of time, knowing the hills would settle.
Once the hilled rows were made, we’d put a little water in a bucket and then fill the bucket with bundles of strawberry plants. Each bundle had 25 plants. A little hand spade would be inserted into the ground and tipped to slip the plants in and not bunch the roots. Spreading the roots a little, they like to be nice and deep with care not to cover their crown. They like to have their heads out with their roots fully tucked in and watered.
The books always said to plant them 12-18 inches apart, but we always did closer to 24 inches. They sprout runners to close in the distance fast enough. The rows are an 18-24 inch wide hill with about a 30-inch walkway. This is about 5 ft from row center to row center.
Some varieties fill the row faster than others; Jewel and Noreaster would try to take over the world. The variety Winona was not very aggressive and benefited from a closer spacing.
Once the planting is done it is best to mulch the patch heavily as soon as possible, usually after a few leaves have grown out. It could be done shortly after planting but a careless mulcher or even the wind can flop a little mulch over the newly planted crowns and if left this way, will suffocate them.
We often used partially composted leaves for mulch in Ohio. These really made the best mulch when wet and heavy as it lays well. These leaves also tended to have very little weed seed. Hay is usually the worst for weed seeds, sometimes straw can be weedy too.
There are worse things than weeds though. In the herbicide laden times we live in, I have heard of people who bought ‘guaranteed weed-free’ straw that had broadleaf herbicide residues strong enough to kill their garden as the straw broke down. Yikes!
There are those who use black plastic mulch for weed control with drip irrigation. Although we eventually did begin to use the drip irrigation, we never used the black plastic ‘mulch’ that other competitors using conventional farming methods did. Our customers swore there was a dramatic difference in the flavor of our berries compared to others. The black plastic replaced the organic matter used for mulch that would eventually feed the soil.
I do not advise using wood chips or sawdust for mulch. They tend to acidify the soil too much; they have to be very thoroughly composted. Unless you have blueberries. Those acid loving bushes are happy to have sawdust and woodchip mulch. But I am not talking about blueberries today.
The First Year
After these strawberries start to grow and become established, they put on bloom and try to bear fruit. We would walk the rows once a week and pick off all the bloom. These guys need to put all their first-year strength into making good strong plants – not berries. The berries will come next year – and more abundantly if they do not bear their first year. About the time of blooming, they also start putting out some tender little arms called runners or ‘daughters.’
These runners are seen but soon forgotten in the mad rush of the berry picking season in the other patches. The picking season usually lasts about 4 weeks, tops. Unless of course, one has ever-bearers, which we did not grow. Everbearing strawberries have fewer ripe at a time but span a very long season. This is great for the home gardener, not-so-great for the semi-commercial grower.
By the end of the picking season when attention returns to the new patch, there is a mad scramble to catch up. All those innocent little runners have a new plant on it rooting anywhere but in the row and growing more daughters of her own. Some mother plants can get carried away and put out 15 or 20 runners. This is quite excessive. It is advised to keep only six runners per plant, each with perhaps a daughter of her own. All others are snipped off. The overcrowding will start soon enough. Better for it to not begin the first year.
These six runners will be divided to have three on each side of the mother plant in the row, letting their daughters grow out to find company on either side of her with their neighbor’s daughters. The problem is, they do not naturally grow where they should. By the end of the picking season, these girls are waltzing across the aisles to visit with the neighbors across the street. But crossing the street is dangerous. Too much traffic, namely the cultivator.
All these plants, which are now putting down roots, are carefully dug up and planted in the row where they belong, by just parting the mulch, planting, and re-laying the mulch. All the extra runners are simply snipped off. When transplanting these daughters, we were careful not to cut the stem connecting her to the mother plant unless she was being discarded. This stem is her umbilical cord, her lifeline; sustaining her until she is established and strong enough to support herself. When this happens, that stem will dry up and the two plants become independent of each other.
About the time the new patch was a little more under control, the bearing patches were calling for attention. The midsummer heat was taking its toll on the tired plants that bore that year. Some varieties are more susceptible to a strawberry disease called Leaf Spot than others. Regardless of variety, post-production plants, as well as plants in an old patch where the minerals are exhausted, are the most susceptible.
To help control this spreading Leaf Spot, a disease that can potentially defoliate a plant, Dad would mow off all the leaves in early/mid July. Mind you, this is a trick with the rows in hills. A scythe or weed eater really works best. The leaves were mowed off, raked into the aisles and then burned there. The plants would then be in need of a good soaking rain or some irrigation. Rain is just a little better than regular irrigation for the trace amounts of nitrogen it contains. That’s why plants brighten after a rain shower more than from a water hose. They’d spring out bright green and have a good leaf cover and be in good condition by August.
August is an important month for strawberries. This is when they set their fruit for the coming year. The more water, weed control, and overall happiness they experience in August, the bigger and more abundant their berries will be in the following June.
In some of the older patches, the overcrowding would become too much for any real production the following year. This overcrowding accelerates the soil depletion from so many competing plants, and it impedes air circulation. This promotes disease and gray mold on the berries. Overcrowding happens because strawberries don’t just grow runners the first year, they do every year. And we were much too busy to cut these off in the older established patches.
Wanting to extend the life of an old patch that had been his favorite, Dad tried a drastic maneuver. He got out the walking plow in July. The rows that were once 18 inches wide with a 30-inch aisle, had nearly grown together. With the plow, he mercilessly chiseled the rows down to 8 inches wide and cultivated the aisles free of plants.
The patch looked destroyed. Most of it was, to the betterment of its survivors. The patch lived an extra season or two and rewarded us most gratefully for its room to breathe. But ultimately, strawberries need to be relocated every so often as they are heavy feeders, and like most crops, they need to be rotated.
Moving into the Dormant Season
The year moved on and would begin to get cold. When the ground began to freeze, we began to haul mulch again. Either leaf mulch or straw and we’d cover row after row (after row, after row…) with a thick bed of mulch. Strawberries like to slip into a long dormant sleep to overwinter, but if they get too cold, it will damage their fruit. The flowers will open in the spring with a black dot in its center, these flowers will bear no fruit. Peaches will do the same thing. Fortunately for strawberries, they can be covered with a protective blanket and suffer no loss.
In the spring, March began to warm up Ohio. With the deep freezes past we would begin going out to uncover the strawberries. This was simply loosening and pulling back the mulch to uncover the crowns. They would wake and stretch at the touch of the warm spring sun. The extra layer of mulch was good for them each year, but to leave them fully covered would smother them. We’d open it just enough for them to grow through, otherwise dormant weeds would grow through too.
Spring holds its own danger to strawberries. Late frosts. The plants themselves are impervious to frost, but the blooms are in danger. When frosted, the bloom gets that black dot in the center indicating that its fruit died.
We bought great big sheets of shade cloth to cover our patches on nights calling for frost. Strawberry bloom is very vulnerable to frost. Dad took no chances. Any time the forecast called for 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less, we covered those patches.
The shade cloth kept the temperature just warm enough to protect the berries from the frosts. Then in the morning, the shade cloth was moved aside and blocked down so that the wind that never stopped blowing in Hardin County Ohio, wouldn’t blow it away. To leave it covered throughout the day trapped in too much heat. Not to mention the fact that it blocked the pollinators from doing their job.
A Hundred Acres
From here the bloom sets its fruit. Each season gives way to the next and there are seasons within each season. Sometimes we only recognize them by looking back at them.
A then ten-year-old younger brother, Emery, lost in thought instead of working, had a sudden announcement. “Dad, y’know what? When I grow up, I’m gonna plant a hundred acres of strawberries!”
Brows arching in surprise, “Really?” Dad asked.
“Yeah”, Emery said with conviction, “Just so I can plow them under!”