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Strawberry spacing gets the boot

By Christopher Andreae / April 14, 1999



How can anyone think simultaneously of strawberries - oh, that sweet, succulent collapse between tongue and teeth! - and geometry?

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That word parches my memory as incisive propositions in regimented classrooms, as chalk diagrams, and as mute protest. How could I envisage a future use for the square of the hypotenuse? And why was I forced to memorize stuff like furlongs, rods, roods, chains, perches, and poles?

Now that I have a vegetable plot, geometry is once again rearing its head. But today I know its literal meaning: "measuring the earth." And I don't feel the same distaste.

It's still tricky, though. I haven't made things easy for myself, admittedly, by setting out diagonal paths and triangular beds (I do have reasons for this other than cussedness). But now I don't know how to plant them. Parallel rows do not seem to work.

Take my strawberries, for example. Most of my gardening books insist strawberries should be planted at least 15 inches apart (some say 18) with 2-1/2 or even 3-1/2 feet between the rows. But if I were to adhere to such measurements, my strawberry triangle would take no more than about six plants.

It is hard to find an expert who is relaxed about strawberry spacing. One book does, however, suggest four rows with 15 inches between the plants on all sides. And this, appealingly, would produce "an old-fashioned strawberry bed," the author points out.

What about the plot gardeners? My neighbor Red, though no proponent of books, unhesitatingly reiterates 18 inches between plants. "Best to give 'em space."

Jimmy Hughes's answer was: "I don't bother with them anymore. They turn too easily into a weed-patch."

Neil reckoned his, last year, were one foot apart. This sounds more like it, I thought. But when he added that he wasn't sure he'd grow strawberries again this year, I became a bit suspicious of his spacing advice. Strawberries are perennials. Had he thrown his away, or what?

John and Cathy Macleod's strawberries grow in a well-tended square. You can't tell how far apart they were originally placed. They have grown close together over the years into a tatty but close-knit mat.

The Macleod plot overall betrays a cogent appreciation for things geometrical, yet they also know rules are for bending and breaking. Their "old-fashioned strawberry bed" is in its sixth or seventh year. The pundits preach renewal every three. Yet it fruited perfectly well last summer. John's attitude is "if it ain't broken, why mend it?" He just manures his strawberries generously each year.

Having weighed all the evidence, in the end I resorted to an instinctual concatenation of foot and eye - an approximate geometry, like scattering peppers on a pizza - when it came to planting my strawberries. Each plant is approximately a size-10 boot print from the next.

Once the deed was done, I came across a section in a book by Sylvia Landsberg that seemed apt. Her volume is called "The Medieval Garden." She observes: "The medieval gardener had a great degree of freedom in measuring, or not measuring, his plots."

What he used to gauge his plantings were parts of the body: "a foot, a step (of about 2-1/2 feet) and the same in forward reach. A hand-span ... gave a suitable distance for planting leeks, as it still does."

As it still does.