Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ahhh... strawberries... sweet strawberries.  Ask my husband and he will tell you that I have a love/hate relationship with the fruit. Though they aren't my favorite fruit, I do love to pick them, to mash them and eat them on vanilla frozen yogurt... to turn them into fruit smoothies or frozen yogurt pops... to make a wonderful fresh strawberry pie. And, if I were to eat them just as is, it would have to be warm from the sunshine, straight off the plant.  Okay, so I guess I do like them, a little.

That said, where does the hate part come in one might ask? That, very simply, is in the huge amount of time and work it takes to care for a patch of strawberries. Ask those who grow even a small patch of strawberries about the work required, and they are sure to mention some sort of run-in they've had with weeds or deer or weeds or birds or weeds. 

Ah yes... weeds, the mortal enemy of the farmer, especially those farmers who do not choose to use any chemical herbicides on their fields (aka... us!) A little strawberry primer in regards to how Firefly Berries grows strawberries will quickly help one to see where the weeds come in to play.

Each spring we currently plant around 5500-6000 bare root strawberry plants. The tiny plants come the third Wednesday in April (yes... just 3 days from today) via UPS from the Indiana Berry Company. They have no leaves yet... only a crown (base of the plant) and roots. We keep them cool and moist until conditions are right for planting. Obviously, the sooner we plant them, the better; however plants can survive up to several weeks if kept cool and moist.

Once conditions are good we employ a crew of family and friends to care for our children and help with the planting and then we are off.  A small planting attachment (which was previously used as a tobacco planter) is attached to the back of our large tractor. The attachment has two little seats with table-like trays in front of them to place the plants in and a metal wheel with a pincher-like mechanism in the middle. Someone drives the tractor slowly while the two people in the seats carefully insert the crown of the small plant into the pincher of the wheel which closes around it and turns towards the soil, making a tiny hole for the plant to live! And walah, 6 or so hours later and we have 6000 strawberry plants in the ground.

Then comes the real work... several weeks later, depending on the weather... weeds will begin to grow amongst these tiny plants, which are now putting out leaves and runners. And, our job will be to hoe each one by hand at least 3 times during that first summer. This allows for the plant to grow big and strong and put out plenty of new runners (which will make new plants!) without the competition of weeds. We also till between the rows, but the weeds are nasty and grow very close to the plants and sometimes the only way to keep a plant weed-free is to pull by hand. Fruiting is not the goal that first year, so whenever possible, flower buds are pinched back as they emerge so as to put more energy into root and plant development rather than fruit.

The second and third years of the strawberry plant includes more weeding by hand and tilling between rows, until at the end of the third year we till the plants under and put the fields into cover crop for 1-2 years to return the nitrogen to the soil so that the process can start all over again. Really, it is quite fascinating how it all works together and I LOVE that part about it... but oh, the weeds. When we bought the fruit farm, we did know that the strawberries required a lot of TLC, but until I was standing in the middle of 3 acres of weed-filled strawberry fields I truly had no idea!

And so... here we are just into the 3rd week of April and already I am on my second round of strawberry weeding in our 2nd year fields. Staying ahead of the game is my goal, for when a strawberry plant has less competition, it will produce more and larger fruit.

2012 has been a strange spring thus far not only because of the weeds, but also the wide fluctuations in temperatures and the lack of moisture. Just this weekend we have gotten some much needed rain, but the previous warm temps followed by several days of frost in the evening/early morning hours have caused a bit of damage to the strawberries ---which have been flowering in small numbers now for almost 2 weeks. Any flower that gets touched with frost will turn from yellow in the middle to black and die, leaving one less strawberry for us to pick and eat. The plants will likely peak in their flowering in the next week or so --so we are keeping fingers crossed that a hard frost will not come our way again this year.

All that said, a fresh-from-the-plant-sunshine-warmed strawberry without any icky chemicals on it or in the soil, really is worth all the work, but keeping that in mind when the war of the weeds gets bad is the hard part!