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Mania of Backyard Strawberry Fields

March 06, 1986|CAROLYN KENNEDY | Kennedy lives in Cupertino

I like spring as much as the next person. But I do have to guard against the season's greatest pitfall: plantmania, the irrational desire to put plants into the earth.

We are all victims of biology. The increased hours of daylight activate our gardening hormones, which, like our appendix, have no function. They were rendered obsolete after the invention of the grocery store.

Unfortunately, writers of garden articles do not understand this. Every year they extol the ecstasies of planting and harvesting backyard crops. This year they're trying to persuade us to grow exotic vegetables such as French dandelions, endive and edible flowers, starting them from seeds.

Granted, I'm not completely immune to their promises of produce. But every time I'm tempted to grow my own corn or sow eight varieties of lettuce in a washtub, I stop and remember the strawberries.

A few years ago I was hooked by a newspaper article, complete with juicy illustrations, about planting bare-root strawberries. All I had to do was stick the plants in the ground and, as long as I cut off the runners, I was sure to have a bumper crop of "luscious berries." There was even a coupon from a local nursery offering a dozen plants for a quarter.

I skipped to the store to cash in my coupon. In my excitement, I failed to notice the shelves of pesticide, insecticide, bags of Supersoil, Wonderbark, perlite, vermiculite, hose attachments, root feeders and bird nets lurking in the background.

At home, I gathered my gardening implements and proceeded to the backyard. A quick read of the directions informed me strawberries liked soil that was well drained and rich. Heavy clay soil like mine required liberal doses of steer manure and redwood compost. And vermiculite for aeration.

I returned to the nursery where I discovered the ingredients I needed were sold only in lifetime supply quantities. But with images of luscious berries still in my mind, I bought the farm, so to speak.

Back home I tried not to dwell on the origins of steer manure as I valiantly chipped away at our impenetrable clay soil and reduced the dirt clods into clumps the size of tennis balls. I twirled in manure and compost. The area looked like it had been hit with hand grenades.

Preferred Planting

Next, I read that strawberries liked to be planted in mounds 5 to 6 inches high, 14 to 16 inches apart and positioned at a 21 degree angle perpendicular to the moon.

I marched into the house for a slide rule, compass and yardstick. These plants were beginning to get on my nerves with all their "needs."

It was finally time to plant. I tried to keep those little strawberry crowns above the soil line, as the directions advised, to avoid the perils of crown rot, but it was difficult since I was planting them on a steep slope.

My husband came out just as I was administering the vitamin solution (to ward off root shock) with an eyedropper. "You planted them too deep," he said.

My back was so stiff, I couldn't turn around to shake my fist at him. It took all my strength just to whisper, "Shut up."

Then, those tyrannical directions informed me I should tuck straw under the plants to keep the berries off the ground.

My visions of strawberry shortcake and strawberry pie and sliced strawberries on vanilla ice cream rapidly faded and were replaced with a strong sense of my own mortality, brought to my attention by the aches and pains in my back and knees. I had been crouching for hours.

And now I was supposed to find straw? It would be easier to find gold.

A Straw Mulch

I read on. The straw was for mulch. I could also use sawdust. Bingo. Another rare substance.

Or you could use black plastic. Black plastic I had.

Like a woman possessed, I cut all my plastic garbage bags into neat little circles, snipped out holes in the center, and fitted them like clown collars over the tiny plants.

Immediately, a wind came up and blew the plastic over the plants.

I searched for rocks to hold the plastic down. But over the years of landscaping, my husband had systematically removed every rock from our small yard.

I compromised and used pointy sticks from the woodpile to pierce the plastic to the ground.

This worked for a while, until it was time for watering. Have you ever tried to water a plant that is firmly stabbed into a plastic bib?

After a few weeks, when I was able to walk without much trace of a limp, I went out and checked on the plants. The plastic seemed to be frying the once green leaves into dry bits.

I ripped off my handiwork.

In time, strawberries did arrive. But so did the snails. I was rarely able to pluck a berry that hadn't already been sampled.

A Free Lunch

All I had done was to provide a free lunch for snails and affordable housing for slugs.

In all I shelled out about $50 for these plants, not counting possible doctor bills. If I'd bought strawberries at the grocery store, at about a dollar a pint, I'd have had 50 pints. As it was, we ended up with about 10 perfect berries, or $5 per berry. And no strawberry is that good.

Now those garden writers will tell you that even though gardening is not always cost effective, it is "life enhancing." All I can say to that is, "Steer manure."

Growing one's own food is an ancient barbaric custom. I, for one, intend to overcome my primitive, biological longings.

And I'm starting by ignoring those strawberry jar planters that sell for only $19.99 and look so good on a patio.

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