One summer in high school I spent every day tending a half-acre strawberry field at a roadside market near my house. That summer my legs got brown and strong squatting among the rows of plants, removing weeds in the hot, humid Connecticut sun. After a satisfying day of weed dismemberment, I'd survey the strawberry field knowing the berries would be fatter and juicier freed of competition.
In my corner of the universe, I was fighting the relentless war between order and chaos, and I was winning.
It's taken me 30 years to get up the gumption to grow my own bed of strawberries. In addition to the three acres of gardens I now tend, would I have the perserverance and time to tend my strawberries responsibly? Flowers and runners need to be pinched off of each plant the first year so all the plant's energy goes into root strength which makes a hardier, more productive plant. This is a difficult thing to do. And who wants to wait a year for fruit when the plant is all too willing to produce berries for you the first year?
The next year, the growing beds need to be kept free of weeds; they need consistent moisture when in bud; they need a monthly organic fertilizer feed; and runners (the babies) must constantly be removed to keep the mother plant strong and long-lived. I decided to start small.
My studio garden is designed with small island beds, richly amended with compost, which allow me to rotate vegetables, cutting flowers, and to trial new plants. I chose one bed, 6 feet by 15 feet, and last year planted three selections of strawberries: Quinalt, Tribute and Tristar, eight plants of each variety, more than enough fruit for a family of two. Quinalt is considered an Everbearing strawberry. It produces a first wave of fruit in June, stops in mid-summer, then produces another wave of fruit at the end of the summer. Tribute and Tristar are Day Neutrals, not dependent upon day length for flowering, so they bloom throughout the summer. If you like a few fresh berries two or three times a week, these are good varieties to plant.
It was painful, but last summer I removed all the runners and most of the flowers through July. The plants got huge, the leaves glossy and dark green, and I enjoyed a few berries in August and September. I was supposed to mulch the plants with pine needles when temperatures started dipping below 20 degrees, but I didn't get around to it. Luckily, our mild winter brought all the plants through unscathed.
The strawberry bed is a small oasis of order in three acres of riotous nature. I designed the strawberry bed to be small so that weeding and harvesting the berries would be simple. I can reach the bed easily from all sides to harvest berries, and the aspen humus mulch holds moisture in and keeps most weeds out. Rather than being a lot of work, this garden is one I retreat to when the chaos of gardening threatens to consume me. I wander down to the studio garden, breathe a sigh of relief at the sight of my well-tended strawberry bed, pop a few berries in my mouth, and suddenly all's right with the world.
With store-bought strawberries and rhubarb, this cobbler is scrumptious. With home-picked fruit, it's divine.
2 1/2 cups rhubarb
2 1/2 cups strawberries
2/3 cup sugar
21/2 tablespoons white flour
Zest of 1 orange
11/2 cups unbleached white flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
Preheat oven to 375. Wash the rhubarb well, cutting off any brown spots or leaves still on the stalks. Cut the stalks in half lengthwise before slicing 1/2-inch thick so all the pieces are about the same size. Wash the strawberries, pat dry, and hull them. Cut them into halves or leave whole if small. Toss the fruit with the sugar, flour and zest. Place in a 10-inch round glass cake pan.
Combine the dry ingredients and cut in the butter with a food processor. Add the cream and mix lightly, just until the dry ingredients are moistened.
Cover the fruit with tablespoon-size dollops of the topping mixture, using it all. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until the topping is browned and cooked through and the fruit is bubbling. Serve warm from the oven with lightly whipped cream. Serves 6.
(Adapted from Fields of Greens by Annie Somerville, Bantam Books, 1993)
Laura Spear is the owner of Forest Edge garden in the Black Forest. Her regular column, Gardening Daze, will alternate with Domestic Bliss throughout the summer.