Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Strawberries and Raspberries

It’s hard to say what I most look forward to in spring – opening the windows, at last, and filling the house with sweet fresh air, riding my bicycle outside, rather than on a trainer in front of the television, seeing the snow recede and the lawn green up, seemingly overnight. But I think number one on the list has to be checking the garden to find all the green shoots emerging from last year’s dead foliage.

So far, I’ve found sedum, Shasta daisies (VERY satisfying, because I planted them from seed last year), coreopsis, liatris, lupines, yarrow, sage and a few others I can’t remember just now. The hostas haven’t come back yet, nor the butterfly weed I planted from seed, and the roses and hydrangeas have yet to show signs of life. But it’s still early.

And the strawberries look fantastic! I pulled the hay aside about a week ago. I’m fairly new to growing strawberries, but the books say you’re supposed to remove their winter mulch early. This will be my first year with (I hope!) a significant crop, and I’m soooo looking forward to it, my mouth waters every time I think about it!

I first tried strawberries in 2008. So many books and articles describe strawberries as a great container plant, I thought I’d grow them in a strawberry pot I’d had for years and in a large planter box Rick built for me. I learned the hard way that the books and articles LIE! Anyone who has any experience growing strawberries knows they constantly send out runners and spread like weeds. They quickly outgrew their containers even though I was out there practically every day, cutting off new runners. They produced lots of beautiful foliage, but just a few small berries.

Part of the problem was the cultivar. The garden center was out of my top choice, Honeoye, so I bought Ogallala, just because I used to live in Nebraska and liked the name! Unlike Honeoyes, Ogallalas are everbearing, which means instead of one main crop in spring (usually June), you get a small crop in spring, and another crop later in the summer.

Which means the few my plants were producing were spread out over the season, making the tiny crop seem even smaller. Plus, the Ogallala produces a “medium to small” berry, even in optimal conditions, so it’s no wonder I got such small berries out of a container.

The next year I decided to get the cultivar I wanted, plant them in the ground, and follow the method of my new guru, Ruth Stout, for rejuvenating the patch. The books will tell you to buy new plants every few years, but Stout was a thrifty woman, and buying new doesn’t fit in with my notion of minimizing purchased inputs for your Backyard Nest Egg. Since her garden was wonderfully successful, and she prided herself on ignoring what she called the “authorities,” I’ll do the same. Here is her method in her words:

I planted three rows of berries, the rows about 8 inches apart. . . I let the first plant in each row make only one runner, straight down the row, and let the other plants in each row make two runners, one up, one down, the row. When I was finished I had three rows of plants, the rows 8 inches apart, the plants in
each row 1 foot apart. But it looks like and is, actually, one row. . .

A year from the following spring, after I had picked the first crop, I pulled up the first plant in each of the three rows, left plants number two and three, pulled up four, left five and six, and so on. In other words, I got rid of the mother plants and left the runners they had made. Then during that summer, the plants I kept were allowed to make just enough runners to replace the ones I had pulled up. Year after year, the older plants are removed, the newer ones are left, and that isn’t much of a job. You have a permanent bed of strawberries and will never have to transplant again unless of course you want
to try a new variety . . .

in August when, I’ve been told, the plants make their buds for next year, I treat them to a little cotton-seed meal for nitrogen
(Ruth Stout's No Work Garden Book, 1971, pp127-8).

I tried doing the same, but it came out a little messy. Still, it was at least controlled growth. I let one stolon grow on each side of each plant, staked it where I wanted it with a hairpin, and cut any other runners off. After I get my berries this year, I’ll try removing the “mothers” and let last year’s runners set some new plants in their place for next year.

I also have high hopes for a good raspberry crop this year. I planted them in 2008. They were just twigs and looked like this:

Raspberries have one of two fruiting habits: summer bearing and fall bearing. The summer bearing actually bear in late spring or early summer, and on canes that grew the prior summer. The fall bearing cultivars produce fruit late in the season, mid-August to mid-September, on the current season’s canes. (For this reason, they’re not a good choice for northern climates because our growing season is so short.)

I chose summer bearing over fall bearing partly because of our short growing season, but also because I wanted the fruit to set before Japanese beetle season starts, usually in early July. Several of our neighbors had raspberry patches that were decimated by Japanese beetles, so I wanted to avoid that. The plan was to cover them with fine netting (which interferes with pollination) once Japanese beetle season starts.

This worked beautifully last year. We had a small crop of berries, which was to be expected the first year, but the plants were fully protected and grew lush foliage and many new canes. (I can’t believe I didn’t take a photo last year – they looked fantastic! But I can’t seem to find one just now.)

But here’s where I made a mistake. There are two prunings that need to be done: one in the summer of the canes that grew the prior year, after they fruit this year, and one in late winter to remove the top ¼ of canes that will fruit this year. Some sources claim you can do the first pruning either in summer after fruiting, or wait until spring and do both prunings at once. (In fairness, most sources advise doing two prunings.) Lazy me decided to wait until spring and do both at once.

Here’s the problem: Now I can’t tell which are the canes that bore fruit last year and which are the canes that will bear this year! It was easy to tell them apart last summer, because the canes that had just fruited were woody, and the canes that will fruit this year were green. Of course, by now, both types of canes are woody! Lesson learned: Prune the old canes after they fruit; don’t wait until the next spring! It’s not that much work.

Since my master gardener’s manual says canes should be thinned to 4-6 canes per running foot of row, and canes in my patch are still almost that thin, I opted to leave the old canes in this year and just prune about a quarter off the tops of all the canes. If the canes that produced fruit last year don’t leaf out, I’ll remove them then.


vrtlarica said...

Hi, I have found your blog by searching on Ruth Stout. I’m trying to apply some of her method, so I’m looking for some experience on that.
Lovely blog!

Wisconsin Garden Chick said...

Thanks! Glad you liked it.

Ruth Stout is a true inspiration. Did you find this older post

about her?

There is a lot more about her there, plus some book titles you might want to check out and links to a few articles about her.

Happy gardening!