Our strawberry plants are just reaching their glorious full bloom. Although dwarfed by the more spectacular apple, crabapple and dogwood trees, which are also blooming now, the strawberry blossoms are beautiful, cheery and full of promise. Clusters of 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 fresh strawberries in June. Lots of the berries get eaten right there 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.
With more work we could produce a bigger berry crop, or plant other varieties for a longer harvest. But for now, this is a pretty agreeable arrangement. It's not surprising that strawberries are easy to grow. They can be found growing naturally 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.
Strawberries prefer full sun and like to grow in fertile well-composted soil that holds plenty of moisture, but also has good drainage. They aren't too particular about soil pH. Strawberries are usually set out as small plants in the spring and then bloom and bear fruit the following year.
Happily strawberries grow their own replacements. Each plant sends out runners which, every so often, push down roots and grow "daughter plants". The best of these can be transplanted to expand your berry patch.
Some may wonder why we should even bother to grow strawberries here in Connecticut. After all, they're available much of the year, at a low price, shipped in from California. Right now, a quart of strawberries is on sale in the supermarket for $1.99.
Flavor is one big reason to bother! California's export berries are bred to have more fiber and less sugar. This makes them sturdy for shipping, but not so tasty to eat. Who wants high fiber in their strawberries, anyway? Wonderful sweet flavor is what you get with garden berries.
Besides their great taste, strawberries, like blackberries and cranberries have cancer-fighting properties. 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.
Health concerns are another good reason to grow your own or to buy organic strawberries. The Environmental Working Group analyzed the results of tests conducted by the FDA on 15,000 food samples. Their analysis found that 12 fruits and vegetables in particular 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!
In order to grow strawberries all year, cheaply enough so they can be shipped across the country and still make a profit for the retailer, the growers must 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 to the ozone layer as CFCs. It may be responsible for 5-to-10 percent of the ozone depletion which increases our chances of getting skin cancer. Up to 20 applications of pesticides are sprayed on the strawberry plants during the season. So, those cheap California strawberries aren't really good for the health of humans or the planet.
Discover the real taste-treat of fresh, local, organic strawberries. Plant some soon.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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