Weeding out the various notions on strawberry care

Strawberries, often considered the perfect home-garden fruit, were not the world's easiest plants when I first put them into my own garden.

Here on the Ozark plateau in Arkansas -- where they seem to be naturally at home -- I began a serious study of strawberries, yet the more I learned the more confused I became.

Every gardener, it appeared, had different rules -- all as easy as pie to him. I kept putting off getting started until finally I felt that, ready or not, here I go. I decided on a site in the garden where the vines would have good drainage, unobstructed sunlight, and nothing to keep the berry bed from being permanent -- all rules of the strawberry game.

According to my many advisers I had a choice of methods for growing the delicious berries. All alike told me, set the plants in the ground in early spring; don't cover up the crowns; supply plenty of moisture; keep the blossoms picked off the first year to ensure a good crop the second; and feed each plant a tablespoonful of blood meal in August.

It all seemed very simple, I thought. Well, not quite.

In considering the various methods I discarded the first one as too casual. This was the ''matted row'' system in which plants are set in rows and heavily mulched, but allowed to form runners that soon cover the entire bed.

I noted that the method most favored seemed to be the ''hill'' system. Here the plants are set in rows, but any runner about to form roots between the rows is cut off and discarded (these young plants may be used to start a new bed).

Removing surplus runners serves to keep the rows narrow and open. It's easier to control weeds, and it also makes it easier to get around the patch when picking the fruit. This method, I was told, gives larger, albeit fewer, berries.

The practical way to keep a permanent bed going is to renew the plants as soon as they have fruited for one or two years. For example, plant half the bed the first year and the second half the next year. By the third year it will be time to renew the first planting and the second will be at peak production, even supplying needed new plants for the renewal.

Some commercial growers and a few gardeners make a practice of mowing the entire patch after harvesting, then quickly burning over the bed. This does not destroy the plants but clears out dead leaves, weed seed, and insects, if any.

A patch treated in this way with regular second- or third-year renewal should last, if not forever, then almost. It depends, of course, as with any other system, on the amount of care the gardener is able and willing to give the strawberry bed.

Another method that intrigued me (and still does because of the rocky Ozarks ground) calls for a permanent stone mulch. Many gardeners are positive that it's the best way of all; that is, if the grower has the time and materials. If so, he can prepare the bed once and for all by spading it deeply, applying humus generously, and then laying the rows of stone 24 inches wide with open rows in between about half as wide for setting the plants. The gardener must then, forever after, replace every plant that has produced one crop (or two, depending on how healthy the plants are) with a new plant. I planned to get busy and construct this rocky bed for my berries, but somehow, by the time 25 Cardinal plants (a variety that is highly recommended for this area) arrived in the spring, all I had accomplished was to spade up the ground the fall before and spread leaves, compost, horse manure, and pine needles in preparation -- and there it lay all winter long.

Now, I soaked newspapers and placed the small, perky plants between layers to keep them cool and moist. Then I quickly made ridges to plant on, leaving a hole about every 12 inches, which I filled with water.

When setting the plants in the ground, I took soil from the side and made a mound as big as a teacup in each of the holes.

Opening a plant out like a small wheel with the leaves (crown) on top, I fitted it over the mound, settled earth over the roots (being careful to avoid covering the crown), and watered each one again.

When the plants blossomed, I pinched each one off. Still, the fast growth of leaves being more than I could keep up with, what I soon had was a matted-row system that I certainly had not counted on.

When the long-awaited second season arrived, however, the fruit was large and sweet, yielding one to two quarts every morning during the season. Birds, plus a few squirrels, nibbled the ripe berries and, if they were overripe, snails and slugs might dig holes on the undersides. I bought large pieces of green net to outwit the birds and squirrels -- but if I picked the fruit early, there was no problem at all.

Now that I know ''practically everything'' there is to know about strawberries, I will tell anyone who asks that ''strawberry growing is just a piece of cake.''

Strawberry shortcake, that is!

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