How Not to Grow Strawberries

I’ve always had a lot of respect for traditional farm families, those people who have devoted their lives to the backbreaking and often heartbreaking job of trying to scratch a living from the ground, day after day, year after year, sometimes generation after generation. A good part of my childhood was spent living with and amongst such people, and I’m sure it taught me a lot about what life is all about for most people who live on this earth: hard work, the planting of seeds, and plenty of hopes and prayers that the sweat of one’s brow will be rewarded with a bountiful life-supporting harvest. I believe those things apply to any honest work a person might take on.

I spent a few years as a reporter for the Sun Times covering agriculture and that gave me even more reason to respect what farmers do. Farming is a complex, demanding business. It takes a lot of know-how to grow good healthy crops or livestock. There are a thousand things to learn and put into practice, and just as many things that can go wrong. So a good farmer plans and plants carefully, keeps a sharp eye on his or her crops and animals for any sign of a problem, and takes quick action to set things right. It’s a learned profession. Anyone who doesn’t appreciate that, or dares to underestimate it, and essentially thinks you can just buy some equipment, put seeds in the ground and viola you’re a farmer, is sooner or later going to be in for a rude awakening. I’ll put my money on sooner.

Which brings me to my latest rude awakening. (As if those five acres of corn I planted in a field on the fertile Eastnor Flats didn’t teach me anything. First the weeds got away on me, and then the earworm finally took over before I decided enough was enough, while I still had a pound of flesh left on my weary bones.)

But enough about the sweet corn fiasco. Let me tell you about strawberries, that other Ontario market garden crop that’s supposed to be an automatic money-maker (grow it, and they will buy). But, alas, that’s only if you know what you’re doing. I mean really, really know what you’re doing, as in being a real market gardener-farmer, well versed in the fine art and science of growing strawberries for sale. There are quite a few such people in the Grey-Bruce area. I know because I happened to notice some nice, big red “locally grown” berries in an Owen Sound supermarket a week or so ago and was green with envy. Up our way Jim Mummery at Cape Chin North has some nice berries. So too I hear I hear does Gerald Hatt in the Lion’s Head area, and Ken Sinclair down near Hepworth, But mine were a disaster, an almost 100 percent crop failure. Instead of the 500 quarts I expected after doubling the size of the patch I got maybe three. I’d like to be able to blame global warming and associated climatic changes. And, yes, we had no rain to speak of on the Bruce Peninsula throughout May, followed by an astonishing heat wave in the first week of June, followed by a spell of cold, wet weather. But that just adds up to some additional stresses for the plants, which, in company with poor management, makes them more vulnerable to disease. Of course, a good, well-seasoned strawberry farmer would know that and take some well-timed precautions.

Anyway, for those of you who just escaped from the big city to a piece of Grey-Bruce ground and may be thinking about planting a garden, this is how not to grow strawberries:

I started my first patch after buying some starter plants from a local nursery. I don’t even know what variety they were, which may have been my first mistake. (There are about a dozen different varieties, with varying degrees of susceptibility to the many plant diseases that can attack strawberries.)

For a while things seemed to go okay. In retrospect I was lucky. I transplanted those first plants on a well-cultivated piece of ground in the field behind the house early that spring. They didn’t produce many berries that first summer, but that’s normal. So far so good, except the battle with the stubborn twitch grass and other weeds was never-ending. I covered the patch with fall leaves for winter insulation, raked the leaves off the top of the plants in the spring, laid down fresh straw, and harvested a fine crop of surprisingly sweet and juicy strawberries in the second summer. I attributed the sweetness to the limestone bedrock no more than a few feet down and figured I was on to something good.

The patch produced well again in its third summer despite a plague of whiteflies. Insecticidal soap, an organic product, more or less got them under control. But the twitch and the weeds were taking over and I was also growing a nice, little forest of maple leaf seedlings, so it was time to re-locate. I dug up some runner “daughter” plants that had taken root and transplanted them in the early fall into several rows at the other end of the garden. That was a mistake – you’re not supposed to transplant strawberries in the fall – but I got away with it. The plants survived the winter under a blanket of leaves and started producing the following summer. I followed the same pattern, transplanting my own runners in early fall, and continued to luck out as I re-located the patch again. Last summer I picked and sold close to 300 quarts of berries and decided to expand, transplanting at least 100 more plants in six more rows. But I didn’t cover them with leaves as usual. Instead, I used straw, and a lot of it blew away before freeze-up. I shouldn’t have been surprised when the new plants didn’t do well this spring. Still, I figured they would bounce back.

Meanwhile the older plants bore lots of blossoms in May. I put down an extra layer of fresh straw in a foolish effort to keep down the twitch grass and other weeds. All that did was reduce the air circulation around the strawberry, creating even better conditions the onset of disease and insect pests. But I was getting complacent. I was breaking all the rules, but the patch or patches had never failed to yield. It was easy, or so I thought.

In early June the fruit was starting to form, way ahead of schedule because of the unseasonable heat, and things still seemed to be looking reasonably hopeful. But by then it was already too late. By mid-June many blossom ends were withered and barren of fruit, and most of the fruit that formed was scrawny and unsaleable. The whole patch had fallen victim to one or more plant diseases, including botrytis grey mould, and several insect pests, especially the tarnished plant bug.

I sought expert advice after the damage had been done from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and, among other things was told, “Never use your own plants as planting stock. Buy from a certified program. Many diseases are spread in plant material.”

And “growers who produce organic strawberries generally have a short rotation. They may harvest only one crop, no more than two, from any given field because diseases build up so badly over the years.”

The Ministry has also published a detailed how-to manual, Growing Strawberries in Ontario. I know because I found my copy, buried unread under seven years of dumb luck and complacency, just the other day. Right there on Page 1 it says, “marketing this perishable crop is intensive and challenging. Attention to detail is required at all stages of strawberry production, from planning, planting and crop management in managing crop pests, harvesting and marketing.”

So when you bite into a perfect, delicious Ontario-grown strawberry this Canada Day holiday weekend, or any other farm-fresh quality food from this area and the rest of Ontario, spare a thought for the farmers whose many hours of daily hard work and expertise made it happen. They deserve a lot of credit. It’s a hard job and they don’t get paid enough.

As for me and my strawberries I’ll be starting from scratch next spring, an older and hopefully wiser man.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2005.

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