Maine Independence Day tradition with early garden favorites
It’s no coincidence that two fresh items from the garden traditionally headline July 4th meals in Maine. Local crops of fresh peas and strawberries are some of the first garden produce harvested, and that usually falls around the first part of July.
Growing peas is a simple matter, but creating and tending a strawberry bed takes some planning and patience. Establishing a strawberry bed can be a “moving” experience. The location of our patch rotates around the garden as we start a new bed every other year. Each spring, new “runner plants” spread out from the “mother plants.” By using these new plants to re-establish the bed, we keep it refreshed with new plants so we can be assured of ripe and sweet strawberries every summer.
If you are starting with new plants, now is the time to plant a new strawberry bed for best results. That way the plants will have the summer to get established. Having that time helps them to survive the winter, and then hit the ground running next spring for a bountiful crop in time for the Fourth of July. To create your own strawberry bed, here are the steps:
Prepare the new bed by removing all weeds. Cultivate to loosen soil and add well-rotted manure or compost. If the soil is heavy and easily compacted, mix in some clean sand for good drainage—essential for successful strawberry culture. Strawberries need good drainage as much as they need regular moisture.
Form slightly mounded rows that are spaced about three feet apart. This mounding helps to ensure that plants never end up sitting in standing water. Continued wetness could promote disease and rot.
Apply a thick layer of straw over and between the rows, before planting the strawberries. Mulching the bed is much easier to do before the little plants are in place. The mulch keeps weeds down, helps keep the soil cool and holds in moisture. But the most important reason to mulch strawberries is to keep the berries off the ground. This practice keeps them cleaner and helps to prevent mold or diseases that they can pick up from the soil.
Moving along a row, spread a hole in the straw mulch, and plant the strawberries by placing the crown of the plant at soil level, with the roots placed straight down. Planted too deep, strawberries are subject to crown rot, or too shallow, and they can dry out. Replace the mulch around the plants as you snug them into the ground.
Remove all blossoms on the new plants so that their energy will go into producing strong plants, rather than a few puny berries. This routine will have to be done several times over the course of the season to be sure that all blooms are removed. The reward for this diligence will come next summer.
Keep the plants watered throughout the spring and summer. Adequate moisture, at least an inch a week, is more important than fertilizer. This need for regular watering is true for both new and established beds. Strawberries are shallow-rooted plants.
In the late fall add to or replace the straw to provide a thick layer for winter protection. Late fall is also a good time to work in some rotted manure between the rows. Now you are all set to enjoy your own home-grown berries—next summer. It is estimated that a 100-foot row of about 100 plants will produce 30 to 50 quarts of berries.
The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) recommends growing strawberries under “low tunnels consisting of lightweight metal frames about 24 inches high covered with clear plastic with ventilation holes. Bungee cords hold the plastic to the frames. This way you “can pick quality berries even after a heavy rain. The plastic sides stay down unless the temperature exceeds 70 F on a warm, sunny day; then bungee cords hold the plastic up near the shoulders of the frames.” The tunnels should also discourage birds from sampling the fruits.
Those ripening berries are a real temptation. Birds and chipmunks all relish strawberries, and we’ve tried a number of defenses to keep them out. A row cover laid over the bed does discourage birds who hunt by sight, but does little to keep the chipmunks out. The best defense we have found against them is to grow plenty of berries and to pick the fruit often before the “chippies” can get to it.
There are many varieties of strawberry plants that are grown in many conditions from the deep South to Canada. Buy plants from local sources rather than from mail order houses to be sure that you are getting varieties that grow and produce well here. They are a bit of work, and bit of worry, but the payoff is indeed a sweet one. You’ll be happy you did it, come Independence Day next year.