During a Russian presidential election campaign a few years ago, candidate Alexander Lebed assailed Boris Yeltsin as “a tired old man who should retire and grow strawberries.” His insinuation -- that the raising of strawberries is so unchallenging it can be left to toilworn oldsters -- is an absurdity that even the heat of electoral battle cannot excuse.
With a sublime taste that epitomizes the sweet delights of midsummer, the homegrown strawberry is brought to the table only after a mighty struggle against birds, bugs, bizarre diseases and inclement weather. We've had a bumper crop this year, but in other year's they've been a sorry disappointment, and at times a cool wet spring can reduce commercial crops in the Fraser Valley by as much as 50 per cent.
Everything, it sometimes seems, loves to eat strawberries. The strawberry root weevil is a universal nuisance, especially in the west. The adult lays her eggs in the bud of the strawberry, and when the grubs emerge, they set to work eating their host plant’s roots. They can effectively reduce a crop by half.
The strawberry crown borer -- a beetle whose grub feeds on the roots and crowns -- is so destructive it has discouraged the growing of strawberries in whole regions. Earwigs, caterpillars, mites, aphids, leaf beetles, spittle bugs, white fly, slugs and sowbugs, not to mention thieving birds-- they all have a go at one or other part of strawberry plants.
Even more devastating are the viruses and fungi that thrive in the moist conditions strawberries like best. Gray mold rot is a fungus that covers the fruit, especially any berries touching the ground, with a gray velvet-like mold, so they resemble a long-forgotten piece of cheese in the far reachesof the refrigerator.
Powdery mildew is a fungus that causes the leaves to turn purple and curl upwards. One of the worst of all is a root disease called red stele, identified by a red centre in the root. The stunted plants wilt in warm weather, producing only a few wizened berries. Verticillium wilt, black root and various other rots and blights can also occur.
For the past forty years, plant breeders have been working to develop varieties that are more resistant to disease, and new plants should be selected with an eye to their resistance to problems specific to your area. Strawberries generally don’t have as wide an adaptation as other fruits, certain varieties doing best in specific areas.
Rather than one grand crop in June/July, so beloved by strawberry jam makers, everbearing varities produce a spring crop and then another crop again later in the season. Where late spring frosts may kill the first set of flowers, they offer the advantage of a second set of blossoms. However, they tend to do less well in areas with hot dry summers.
There’s a certain amount of excitement these days over the new day neutrals -- plants that set flowers regardless of how long the day is, continuing to produce a modest number of berries from spring until autumn. But afficionados maintain that the taste of the best single-crop varieties has yet to be matched by these everbearing newcomers.
Regardless of variety, careful cultural practises can reduce pest and disease problems. Plants must be renewed every two or three years, and crop rotation is recommended. New plants should never be located where tomatoes, eggplants, peppers or potatoes have been recently grown, as these are all vectors for verticillium wilt.
Generally, single-crop varities are best planted in early spring. They need rich moist soil slightly on the acidic side, so lots of compost, manure and other organic matter is vital. Roots must be carefully spread at planting, with the crown at surface level. Too low, the crown will rot; too high, the roots will dry out.
Mulching is highly recommended to retain moisture, suppress weeds and keep the berries up off the ground. I use a thick mulch of grass clippings applied in spring after the soil has warmed. Some experts recommend a mulch of pine or spruce needles to increase vigour, flavour and stem strength. Rot and decay problems can also be lessened by picking the berries when they’re white or light pink on about one quarter of their surface. They’ll ripen fully in a day.
Once fruiting is finished, it’s important to clear off all the old leaves and any unwanted runners. One traditional method was to set fire to the whole bed of straw mulch. Shearing the plants to about ten centimetres and removing all the debris will accomplish much the same in less incendiary fashion.
Single crop varieties develop their fruit buds in late summer for the following spring’s crop, so it’s important they be well fed and watered late in the season. A winter mulch helps prevent damage from frost heaving and cold drying winds. I try to give the beds three late winter sprayings with dormant oil and lime sulphur.
I note finally that among their strawberries from seed, Thompson and Morgan offer a variety called ‘Mignonette’ which is used in France for decorating pastries and dropping into a glass of champagne. Perhaps the long-since-reconciled Lebed and Yeltsin dropped one or two at their election night victory celebration.