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Waltham Fields Community Farm (incorporated as Community Farms Outreach, Inc.) is a nonprofit farming organization focusing on sustainable food production, fresh food assistance, and on-farm education. For more information about Waltham Fields check out our website!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Notes from the Field: Spring Strawberries

April is the cruelest month, wrote the poet TS Eliot, and it was too true for our strawberry plants this year.  Organic strawberries are notoriously hard to grow.  Weeds, pests and diseases all have their way with them; cold weather at flowering can lead to an impoverished crop; wet weather during harvest season leads to grey mold and berry collapse.  This 'berry roulette' is compounded by the fact that growing traditional perennial June-bearing strawberries means berries need to pay their way for the entire year during a brief harvest period of about two weeks to a month.  For the other eleven months, they are just a maintenance headache for vegetable farmers who are trying to keep up with other tasks.   Essentially, strawberries on an organic vegetable farm are a delicious, labor intensive gamble. 

Intellectualizing about strawberries, of course, is totally obliterated by the first bite of a sun-warmed strawb
erry in June.  Financial considerations (are these berries really paying for their real estate?) are replaced by the considerations of a more complex economy of taste, smell, and satisfaction.  On a primitive level, the first taste of strawberries is a reassuring signal that summer really has arrived.  All of this made it even harder to decide to plow under our strawberry crop this spring.  

Planted in the fall of 2009, our berries were intended to be in the ground for one season only.  We had decided to grow fall-planted, June-bearing strawberries as annuals, turning them under in July to get another crop in following the berries.  In this way, we were trying to ensure that that little piece of ground paid for itself while still growing the berries that everyone (including us) loves so much.  The strawberry plants looked so good after that 2010 production season, however, that we decided to keep them around for another year to see if we could get another year out of them. We weeded them in the fall and mulched them with straw, a fateful decision which would be the beginning of the end of this particular strawberry planting. 

In the spring of 2011, the strawberry plants emerged from their mulch of straw along with a lovely crop of quackgrass, a perennial weed that thrives alongside strawberries.  The seed must have come in with the straw, but once established the grass, like the berries, reproduces by means of rhizomes that spread through undisturbed soil.  Unlike the berries, however, quackgrass rhizomes can grow more than an inch a day -- the strawberry crop is no match for the ferocious energy of the weed.  Because we were committed to this berry patch, we weeded the quackgrass.  And weeded.  And weeded.  Farm staff and dedicated volunteers dug through the ground for hours to pull out the sharp, spiky rhizomes and try to inhibit the growth of the quackgrass.  The berry crop in 2011 was bountiful and delicious, but was abruptly cut short by heavy June rains that turned ripe berries to fermenting mush. 

Then the strawberry patch left our attention for a few months while we focused on the rest of the farm.  While the vegetative part of quackgrass grows more slowly during the heat of the summer, the rhizomes continue to grow, spreading through the strawberry beds under the soil in preparation for sprouting when the weather cools in the fall.  And sprout they did.  And we weeded again, all through the fall, digging out the pointed rhizomes again until it seemed as if we might have a shot at a clean patch in the spring.  Having learned our lesson about the straw, we mulched the berries with clean leaves chopped by our manure spreader, renovated the beds with the cultivator, and hoped that we might get a third year of production out of our one-year berry patch.  But it was not to be.

The warm, dry weather of March and April brought both strawberries and quackgrass out of dormancy.   While the strawberries grew slowly, the quackgrass sprouted immediately.  It was clear at once that our weeding efforts in the fall had only disturbed the rhizomes of the quackgrass, which then sent up even more vegetative growth to compensate.  Large patches of the strawberry beds were covered with lush stands of grass.  The strawberry plants that remained were patchy and stressed by the competition with the quackgrass for scarce water and nutrients.  Each day, the circles of grass grew taller, thicker, and wider. 

We realized that we were once again staring down the barrel of hundreds of person-hours of hard, painful handweeding in order to have a shot at a June berry crop.  Even then, the competition with the quackgrass was so intense that we were not sure we would have enough berries to go around.  The idea of a scant crop of berries to begin with, possibly made even worse by harvest-time rains or bloom-time freezes, (especially because the early spring made an early bloom, threatened by frost, seem inevitable) and the possibility that all of our hard work would be made useless by a resurgence of the new spotted-winged drosophilia fly (about which more later) was what finally made our decision easier.

We knew that we had to act quickly to turn up the rhizomes with the moldboard plow so that they could be exposed to air and sun and dry them out to kill them, hopefully without chopping them up and encouraging them to reproduce.  The weed problem was getting worse by the day.  Late last week, the first strawberry plants flowered.   A day or two later, Dan put the two-bottom plow on the back of the tractor to open up a new piece of land.  On his way, he stopped by where I was re-fixing a reemay cover that had blown off our spring cabbages.  "Strawberries?" he asked.  "Do it,"  I said. 

So, in the end, we made this call for efficiency and to use our labor wisely, rather than for the quixotic quest for a June berry crop this year.  I believe that we chose well, but it does not make it easier to walk past the former berry patch, now turned up to expose those roots to the sun.  It will make our June poorer, but, we hope, the rest of the season richer.  The hundreds of person-hours of labor that would have gone to weed the patch will now be available for other tasks, other crops.  We will try to experiment with some annual everbearing strawberries this summer, if we can get our hands on some plants at this late date.  And we will not neglect those other economies of sensation and satisfaction that drive so many of our decisions on the farm. 

See you in June,

Amanda, on behalf of the farm staff

Images by Rebekah Carter (2011).

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