Friday, June 11, 2010

Help and Hope for My Strawberries

Rain in early June. I am going on vacation. What will happen to the strawberries?
Every year I fecklessly let the strawberry plants run wild. They are our most reliable food crop. I keep waiting for the plants to tucker out and stop producing berries, as commercial growers and reference sources say they will. They start slowly in the spring, and I think, oh well, this may be the year. I remember how thick and tangled they grew last year; and how so many of them rotted during the long rainy spell when dark weather kept them from ripening before they rotted, and wet weather kept me from wanting to fight my way into the overgrown patch to pick them.
I like a natural look. But my strawberry patch has been a jungle.
My plan this year is to put boards on the ground to make paths between the plants, i.e. the areas of exposed earth in early spring before the plants gather steam and suddenly there is no more exposed earth, using various pieces of waste wood I collected last year. In April I put the boards down, beginning on the shadier house-side of the patch, where the plantings are less lush. The make an awkward pattern from the kitchen window. I run out of skinny boards before I get to the sunnier side of the patch where the plants – not only strawberry, but Shasta daisy, raspberry and blackberry – thicken up and make picking almost impossible.
So when the strawberries do send out their low runners in all directions, confounding my predictions of a downturn, they quickly tangle up the area where I have no paths and no easy way to get at them. Still the berries are slow, by my internal clock, though the weather is mild, and I mutter to myself – sadly? hopefully? – we’re not going to get too many strawberries this year.
Then they sprout, tangle, blossom, set fruit, and by the last days of May the undergrowth turns red.
I stay on top of them at the start, picking the first ripe handfuls on the first few sunny days of strawberry season. Then the weather changes, rain comes regularly after a few weeks’ dry spell, and berries begin to rot before I can rescue them. They seem to ripen deep red on the outside and fill with damp on the inside at the same speed. You reach for them, and as soon as your fingers touch the flesh they feel the unnatural softness, and your mind says, “rotten,” “gone,” “done for”; add them to the compost pile.
If you miss that stage of red but rotten, in a few more days they turn gray and fuzzy on the outside. Sometimes they fuzz over without ever reaching ripeness.
So that, as I tell myself for the second year at least, is why the serious growers, doing what the reference guides to direct serious growers, do not let the plants go natural. They pull off the runners. They keep open space between lines of plants – rows. They don’t let the vines run in between other plants – big Shasta daisies, roses, bush berries. That’s why strawberry fields (forever, or not) all have the same dusty, conventional look.
And yet however amateurish my technique, we still collect strawberries by the quart, freeze some, and eat too many. We have strawberry pancakes. I cook berries in mango juice and a few spoonfuls of sugar, creating a breakfast topping halfway between compote and syrup.
And this year Anne makes a pie, somewhat after a recipe in the Globe, laying whole strawberries over a crust and then a strawberry filling of broken berries, sugar, and cornstarch to thicken; then putting the pie into the refrigerator to thicken.
It’s off the charts delicious.
We go to country tomorrow to visit Anne’s family for a few days, with scores of berries still marching toward their destination of ripeness and rot.
We’ll come back and I’ll shake my head over the waste, the soft unsalvageable ones, and pick a few edible ones. Dry weather would help; more rain will hasten decay.
But every year we grab more than a few bowls of strawberries in their prime, or close enough to it, and enjoy them. How much better can you do in life? Take the good things life offers, be thankful. Don’t worry about the ones that got away.
Nature has a plan for them too. It’s called compost