Immediately the deer found them and ate most of their leaves. A great many crowns were yanked right out of the ground in the process. We tried all manner of deer repellents, animal hair, powdered bobcat urine and hot pepper sprays to protect our precious crop and a few plants did survive. The deer fence was up by later that season and the beds started to fill in … with grass that is. The sparse strawberry plants were no match for the sturdy brome grass and ladino clover that covers our walking paths.
But, there were still some berries out there, or at least there were until we went to pick them only to find that someone else had gotten to them first. We soon discovered the culprit (s) – a seemingly endless number of raccoons. For the entire strawberry season, Tom dutifully carted off the latest critter caught in the live trap to the other end of the farm. Every morning there was one in the trap or on one occasion, surprisingly two. As we were sharing our strawberries with our four-legged neighbors, there were hardly any for our dear two-legged members. The last two strawberry seasons have been nerve-racking with us only being able to distribute perhaps one pint of strawberries per member over the course of the season. Frustration reigned as members had to check off on a list for whether they had gotten their berries, so that the next week the rest of the membership could receive them. Very annoying for all of us, let me tell you.
We were beginning to think we should give up on the whole berry business, when we decided to give it once last try. The deer fence was keeping the deer out and we had started talking about getting a dog to keep out the raccoons. That winter at the Great Plains Vegetable Growers Conference, I attended a lecture on berry production where they described the ‘matted-row’ system for strawberries where you develop a thick row of plants separated by a mulched path. So early last year we prepared a 50’ x 100’ block and planted around 900 plants, a foot apart in rows five feet apart. At first the planting didn’t seem to be going too well as the early April ground was tight making digging difficult. Libby Negus, our fabulous ’07 apprentice, slogged along beside us digging the holes and carefully planting each one on a mound of soil with the roots carefully splayed about. For the entire 07 season all eyes were on the strawberries. On days when we finished the CSA harvest early, the members diligently weeded and mulched the patch. By fall we had jointly weeded the strawberries on five different occasions and applied about 80 bales of straw mulch.
Over the winter, we swore ‘never again’ to the raccoon onslaught decided to get a dog. Our pup, Rocky, was only here a short while before he frightened off his first varmint and there’s been no signs of our old masked bandits since. With the patch now protected, the plants were able to thrive in the cool, wet weather of this spring and by early May the rows had filled in nicely and were in full bloom.
Last week the strawberry distribution began with a tasting of strawberries for the Wednesday shares. By Saturday, we were picking 20 quarts a day. This week we are averaging 50 quarts each morning. Depending on how much help we have, it is taking us two to four hours to harvest the strawberries every day. But we cannot complain even though the other crops may be a bit unkept, because we have loads of the juciest, freshest, most scrumptious berries. This week the full shares will receive 2 quarts and the partials one. The overage we hope will end up in the freezers, canning jars and bellies of those who order extra. As this is a new experience for us, we’re not sure how long it will last. Our ‘Honeoye’ plants are June-bearers which are supposed to produce for 3-4 weeks, so we may have another weeks or two. So enjoy the berries while you can and remember all the good people who made it all possible – it was truly a community effort.