Choosing Royalty

By Carol Ann Sayle  
Photography by Carole Topalian

Most market days in spring—once the slowly turning Earth has revealed the sun above the tree line at the eastern side of the farm—visitors can be found in the field, yearning for a royal encounter. They bend to the task, lifting leaves in hopes of catching that familiar flash of crimson. Those who know where to look waste no time. Those unsure would do well following the nearest red-chinned toddler, because a sweet, juicy strawberry, twisted straight from the plant and eaten on the spot is a joy like no other, and not to be missed.

It takes seven months to achieve this moment. In October, the plantlets arrive from California looking like dead roots dangling from a short little neck (the crown), but they are alive. To keep them that way, it’s best to get them into the dirt immediately. Raised beds with the soil loosened are waiting—fertilized with compost and amendments, fitted with drip tape and topped with plastic mulch, which conserves water, warms the soil, lessens fungus and weeds and permits standing rainwater to evaporate quickly. A home gardener can use straw or pine needles as mulch, but fungus and pill bugs may taint the harvest.

We make three-inch holes in the plastic, but no holes in the loose soil. With a stick, we “pin” the ends of the roots to the soil, and push them in, until the neck is at the same level as the soil. Then we press the soil firmly over the roots. Another farmhand, strolling along with a dribbling hose, waters them in.

On warm fall days, the plants start to grow, and by December, they send out thin runners which soon sport baby plantlets with tiny leaves and roots. Ah ha! These youngsters can be used to fill in for any plants that died—it happens.

Some years, by the end of December, a five-fingered stem emerges from each crown. The resulting berries vary in size. The middle finger carries the large “king” berry, the next two fingers, medium-size “queens” (strawberries have their own moral code, but you’ll be glad there are two queens). The last two fingers are the small berries, the “prince and princess.”

Now, if a hard freeze occurs during this royal event, you’ll wish you had placed row cover, or even your best quilt, over the plants. If you didn’t, the royal berry family will turn brown, and that’s it until spring. We cover our plants with floating row cover, from December until March, because, over the years, we have seen many suddenly brown rulers exiled. Row cover is preferable to other covers, as sunlight and rain can pass through it. Do not use plastic, because you’ll sleep-in while the morning sun cooks your plants, and April will be totally barren—the ground dressed with dead mop-heads.

When the plants begin to flower in late winter, fertilize them with a foliar spray (fish emulsion and seaweed) and by April, your royal bounty should be ready to harvest. Pick the berries RED, RED, RED. Not pink, certainly not white, absolutely not green. Only the red ones will be sweet and full of vitamins. You can cut off the berries with scissors, or snap their necks (ooh!) with a quick twist. They are best eaten that day. To delay the pleasure, place them in the refrigerator, or even the freezer (wash, de-stem and place them on a cookie sheet and freeze). Once frozen, they can be stored in bags in the freezer.

By mid May, even though the harvest is over, a miracle has happened! More baby plants on runner stems look for good soil; some have already rooted in the beds. Keep them weeded and watered, and in the fall, fertilize them for your next crop. The mother plant, however, is best composted, as she is now dethroned and probably exhausted from chasing after her own red-chinned toddlers.