“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.”
— Dr. William Butler on strawberries (17th-Century English writer)
When I read through our e-mails from our regular and newer Farm followers over the last couple of weeks, I noticed two trends. Firstly, Stonewall Farm followers have a DEEP passion for our dairy products, whether it be for the 100 percent vanilla extract that goes into our vanilla yogurt, or how continuously luscious our maple ice cream tastes, or how smooth our aged cheddar cheese feels. Secondly, and what I’ll be exploring today in this post, is that Stonewall Farm followers have at least as DEEP, if not even deeper cravings, for our strawberries(!) On Facebook alone, we have noticed on page dozens and dozens of “Likes” with almost as much commentary about the best strawberries for jamming or just eating by the mouthful on the trip back from Farm Store to home. It feels like as the last remaining pints and quarts of our strawberries are picked here at the farm that we should pay a reflective tribute to quite a storied fruit.
Garden strawberries (Fragaria ananassa) as we know and taste them nowadays are actually the result of breeding in 1750’s-era France between two earlier strawberry varieties from North and South America. Fragaria virginiana strawberries from eastern North America were hybridized with Fragaria chiloensis strawberries from Chile. Their resultant fruit of such juiciness and size inevitably returned the wild woodland strawberry, Fragaria vesca, back to smaller but to freer reign after almost a century of cultivation efforts. Yet, this is another fascinating aspect to strawberries: just how global in scope this fruit happens to be. Found across the Northern and Southern, Eastern and Western hemispheres of the planet, strawberries in their Fragaria glory represent a botanical connection to world history literally whenever and wherever we are.
There are three types of strawberry growth varieties, often characterized by their growth patterns during specific times of the year. In cooler, northern climates such as here at Stonewall, June bearing/spring bearing and day neutral growth varieties are the most common. June bearing/spring bearing strawberries are plants and their runners which produce their fruits during a 2-3 week period in the spring, most often in June. They are also the most diverse looking, often with flowers, fruits, and runners. With day neutral strawberries, they can produce fruits throughout the growing season (spring-early fall), but with much less runners than June bearing/spring bearing types. Thus, while followers like you visited by the Farm Store the last 2-3 weeks, you would have picked up pints and quarts of June bearing/spring bearing strawberries, and probably of the Earliglow and related varieties which handle exposure to colder temperatures.
Now, in terms of plantings, strawberries take on care needs all their own, regardless of growth variety. While they can generally be planted as early as March or April with open soils, they have very low tolerance for wet soils and grow best if soil is at least “moderately dry.” From there, as with some other farm crops but especially possessing its own unique attention to detail, strawberries have their own climate and depth criteria. According to a University of Illinois Extension growing guide,
“Try to plant strawberries on a cloudy day or during the late afternoon. Set the strawberry plant in the soil so that the soil is just covering the tops of the roots. Do not cover the crown. After four or five weeks, the plants will produce runners and new daughter plants.”
Then, there comes the question of how to plant strawberries in terms of space. Three “systems” of arrangement have proven the most successful and include matted row, spaced row, and hill systems. Matted row systems find their appeal not only among the June bearing/spring bearing strawberries, but also at Stonewall. Plants here need to be from 18-30 inches apart in rows at least three to four feet apart. It looks generally something like this historically, with a photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Extension:
With spaced row and hill systems, the grower exercises more sleight of hand. In spaced rows, mother plants and daughter plants (original runner offshoots from mother plant) are spaced 18 and four inches apart respectively, with all other runners pulled out during the growing season. Hill systems work best with day neutral strawberries, in which only the mother plants stay intact so that further fruit growth in clusters of two to four plants each, spaced out every foot. Such extensive plant detail and management tends to lead to higher fruit yields, fewer disease infections, and larger fruit sizes.
As long as they are grown in well-drained soils loaded with organic matter (e.g. compost, plant wastes, animal manure) and picking up no less than 4-6 hours of sunlight exposure per day, strawberries will have minimal threats to their growth. It doesn’t hurt if strawberries receive at least one inch of precipitation/water per week either. Mulching from initial planting in the spring all the way through past the end of frost seasons (i.e. after Memorial Day in New Hampshire) can protect younger growth from volatile temperatures. Nevertheless, as another quirk of strawberry cultivation would suggest, strawberries don’t make for the best “neighbors” on the farm or in a home garden. If strawberry starters are planted alongside eggplants, peppers, potatoes, or tomatoes, strawberries could fall ill to verticilium wilt, a disease which many plants but not strawberries are immune to.
Yet, when all of these considerations are given and especially in a timely manner for June bearing/spring bearing varieties such as Earliglow (among others), strawberry magic happens. Weeks of quietude on most Northeast farms and gardens due to slow, steady growth inside greenhouses and slowly warming growth in outdoor soils becomes jolted awake when people hear news that “STRAWBERRIES ARE READY!” The steadiness of the rest of the growing season, let alone of weeks’ worth of warmer temperature crops achieving maturity, remind us how exciting not only strawberries, but seasonality can be.
Yes, it can be a break from cold winter months to have strawberry shortcake on angel food cake using thawed, once-frozen strawberries in January. However, if you have eaten enough strawberries, there can be no contest between that strawberry shortcake in January versus the same shortcake in June when the fresh juices of several weeks’ worth of strawberry cultivation hit your tongue.
Furthermore, there are the beautifully loaded nutritional benefits of eating those fresh strawberries. In one cup of strawberries alone, one can obtain over 141 percent of their daily Vitamin C needs, 11 percent of their dietary fiber needs, 5 percent of their Vitamin B-6 needs, and even 2 percent of their daily calcium and protein needs(!)
When you pick up any of the remaining pints of Stonewall Farm strawberries this weekend through next week, you can rest assured that seasonal strawberries grown the Stonewall way make up for in cultural and natural history, in community connection, and especially in taste for however slightly more they may cost in dollars and cents compared to the frozen packages in a supermarket. Time to spring in with strawberries as your ode to summer goodness!
Much thanks for the information and research into this week’s post with resources from the University of California-Los Angeles Botanical Garden, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the University of Illinois Extension, and Stonewall Garden Coordinator Austin Mandryk. It just makes learning about strawberries all the sweeter!
Photo Courtesy of Matthew Young