Our strawberry plants are in glorious full bloom now. The apple and crabapple trees, which have just finished flowering, and the dogwoods, approaching full bloom, are more spectacular. Still the strawberry flowers are so beautiful, cheery and full of promise. Clusters of those bright white flowers with yellow centers bob delicately in the breeze. Most of them will swell to delicious red berries in just a few weeks.
In our kitchen garden, strawberries grow among iris, columbine, herbs, and yarrow. Several times over the past decade we've set out a dozen or so strawberry plants. Each spring I do a bit of weeding, and occasionally, I'll direct a runner that's heading into the path, back into the garden. Then, we pick and eat fresh strawberries during June. Lots of the berries get eaten right in the garden, of course but we usually pick enough to have shortcake several times, or even a strawberry-rhubarb pie, one of our favorite desserts.
We could certainly do some more work and get a bigger yield of berries, or plant other varieties for a longer harvest, but for now, this is a pretty nice arrangement. It's not too surprising that strawberries are easy to grow. They grow wild over much of eastern North America. We have several patches of these native strawberries on the farm, too. Their berries are smaller than the cultivated ones, but are loaded with flavor. The wild berry genes are an important part of the cultivated berries. The native people of eastern North America used the berries to flavor bread and beverages and probably planted them, too.
Strawberries prefer full sun and like to grow in fertile soil which holds plenty of moisture, but has good drainage. They are usually set out as small plants in the spring and will bloom and bear the following year. They aren't too particular about soil pH.
Strawberries grow their own replacements. Each plant sends out runners which every so often push down roots and grow a daughter plant. The best of these can be transplanted to expand your berry patch.
Some may wonder why we should bother to grow strawberries here. After all, they're available much of the year, at a low price, shipped in from California. A pint of these berries in the supermarket, weighing one pound, now costs less than $ 1.30.
Flavor is one big reason to bother. California's export berries are bred to have more fiber and less sugar which makes them sturdy for shipping, but not so tasty to eat. Who wants high fiber in their strawberries? Wonderful sweet flavor is what we get with our garden berries.
Besides their great taste, strawberries, like blackberries and cranberries also help to prevent cancer. In addition to healthful flavonoids, they all contain a polyphenol which neutralizes carcinogens before they can invade human DNA. One study found that strawberries also block the formation of some carcinogens in the intestines.
If we're eating strawberries for our health, however, we would be wise to heed a study reported in the New York Times last fall. The Environmental Working Group analyzed the results of tests on 15,000 samples of food conducted by the FDA. Their analysis found that just 12 fruits and vegetables had the largest number of, and the most toxic, pesticide residues. At the top of the list for the most pesticide-polluted fruit or vegetable was - you probably guessed - strawberries!
To grow strawberries for a long season, cheaply enough so they can be shipped across the country and still make a profit for the retailer at $ 1.29 a box, the growers have to use lots of pesticides. Before planting, the ground is sterilized with tear gas and with methyl bromide, a chemical which is 50 times as destructive of the ozone layer as CFCs. It may be responsible for 5-to-10 percent of the ozone depletion. Our children will be more likely to get skin cancer as the ozone layer is eaten away. Then, during the season, up to 20 applications of pesticides are sprayed on the strawberry plants. Those California strawberries aren't really good for the health of humans or the planet.
Although the average American spends less of his or her take home pay on food than the citizens of any other country, big American agriculture is willing to destroy the ozone layer and poison farm workers to produce cheap, tasteless, year-round strawberries.
Find out what a real taste-treat fresh, local, organic strawberries are. Plant some soon.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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