Why We Grow Strawberries


Photo by Carol Ann Sayle

The beds are ready, but divided. Four beds at our rural farm in Milam County, and four more at the urban Austin farm. At 6:30 a.m., before dawn broke, Larry and his helpers stretched black plastic mulch over flat-topped raised beds that I and my helpers had prepared a few weeks ago. Shoveling soil to hold the edges of the plastic down, they were trying to beat the oncoming rain, which, if the beds were not quickly made, would delay the entire strawberry-planting endeavor.

The "mulch" is an ecological sin in our eyes, but weighed against the desires of parents and toddlers to be able to pick a fresh organic strawberry, a "red-red" one, out in the beautiful fresh sunshine of next spring, our scales tilted to the kids.

The mulch helps keep weeds off the berry plants, conserves water lost through evaporation beneath it, and speeds evaporation on top of it, thus reducing the chances of berries mushing-out in standing rain puddles.

Perhaps you'll say that we shouldn't be growing strawberries, but we do it because the children emerge from the picking patch with chins and shirts stained red.

The first year we grew strawberries, in 1994, we used saintly straw to mulch the plants, thinking the berries would sit atop this straw and be safe. It didn't work. The straw stayed damp and this led to white fungus on the berries and infestations of pill bugs and other tiny strawberry lovers. We lost 90 percent of the berries. The next year, in frustration, we gave in to the protection of plastic mulch, and had a great crop.

We've divided our normal eight-bed crop between the two farms this year, as insurance against whatever vagaries of nature are visited on each farm. Last year's crop, completely planted here in Austin, suffered an 80 percent loss as most of the plants died because our well went dry during the drought, and we had to irrigate them with chlorinated, high-pH city water. The green leaves just went brown, crinkled up, and died. There was no public berry picking in the spring, and the only berries on our market table were from the 600 surviving plants--out of 3,000--picked by me. That was more bending over than I wanted to do, but some berries were better than none.

During the drought that raged on, we added a rainwater tank (yes, a plastic one), and since we are in a flood period now, we plan to use the collected rainwater to irrigate the strawberries. Alas, we use plastic drip tape to deliver this sacred rainwater from the plastic tank to the plastic-draped beds. A combination of sins, but justified by the conservation of, and benefit from, the rainwater.

The bare-root plants should come today. Grown in California, they'll arrive by a truck burning diesel. Another problem, but strawberries are an annual here; we must order fresh roots each season, as our hot summers will fry baby plants in the field.

Perhaps you'll say, after reading these admissions, that we shouldn't be growing them, but we do it because the children emerge from the picking patch with chins and shirts stained red. There are no fungicides or other chemicals used on these berries, and they can be picked red-ripe for best flavor and nutrition, and temptingly, they are eaten on the spot as well. Many of the parents allow no other strawberries during the year, because they are either pesticide bombs or they are strangely bright-red, unripe berries.

Here at the farm, out in the field, the kids learn that it is fun to harvest their own food with the sun warming their backs, as foragers are privileged to do. An added plus is they are receiving the miracle of sunshine's vitamin D for their bodies. In this case, we think the means are justified by the joyous, healthy result.