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Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Uncommon Goodness, the Strawberry

Saturday, June 02, 2018


{image__1}Innocence remains under distinctive triple leaves each June and it is the strawberry. Adults must bend to observe, children are much closer and adept on all fours. Strawberries present elegant jagged green foliage to the world. Hidden beneath their thickset blanket are crimson explosions of wholesome beauty and health. Taste is indelible, our first nibble patches strawberry upon the child’s heart forever. If there isn’t a time for the heart to swell larger, look no further. Plant strawberries. 

Urban gardeners’ nurture and guide crops towards abundance. There is a third element present, we share. We are never alone in our quest, past seasons, past people, resurrect and are made manifest one crimson strawberry after another. Newcomers and children enter an unforgettable fellowship, we adore the strawberry’s capacity to enchant others. Under their spell ourselves, we grow strawberries for vitamin packed nutrition. Our testimony is health and vigor. Our model those who first brought strawberries into our lives. Whether long ago or this season, sit at the joyous communal table. 

Add a new perspective, throw down a burlap bag and kneel, bend, gently lift the foliage. That’s where the strawberries are, be gentle, the plants are alive, break the stem above the strawberry, don’t squeeze or tug. Dad smiled and ate a strawberry, hardly a glance for slugs or bird pecks, me too. He carried a splint oak woven basket, a hoop handle in the middle, red hue stains on sides and bottom. We ate another and more, discovery fuels eagerness. Wiser, Dad put berries into the basket. Red lips tell another story as more nimble fingers find strawberries. Our intent was clear, profound love needs few words. “Extra berries are for Nana’s jam and you can help pull rhubarb stalks too, pie for breakfast sounds good, doesn’t it?” Griddle hot jonny cakes, melted butter, a dollop of Nana’s jam, pie too, are the frontiers of happiness. 

People foraged for strawberries long before they were introduced to gardens by royal command in medieval France. Originally very small explosions of taste, wild strawberries require vigilant eyes. They remained the province of royal gardens for centuries until Yankee farmers sent the first to Boston market in the 1840’s.  20th century breeders developed many varieties, size, shape and color values often outpacing flavorful taste. Chemistry duplicated strawberry flavor and color until the once regal became ordinary, a color and flavor. Urban gardeners enjoy the privilege of selecting taste just above disease resistant types. 

Strawberries produce large crops in small spaces. They really do thrive grown in heavy straw mulches, manure and spoiled hay being classic top dressing for strawberry beds. They grow best in six hours of direct sunlight. Strawberries are sturdy, tough plants adaptable to vertical, container and hanging gardens. Select the largest strawberry pot possible. They are good investments and last for years. Larger pots hold water better, fill with potting soil and keep moist. Fish emulsion will deliver water soluble nutrients for not only luscious berries but also keep long lasting foliage healthy and green. 

Strawberry plants are prolific. A mature strawberry “mother” plant sends foot long runners outwards, forming roots and “daughters” wherever the runner touches soil. The runners and new plants are readily apparent during the heavy June harvest. Often, strawberries are more a matter of thinning than planting. Best practice is to encourage the latest generation with straw or other mulch, snip off the runner and pull up the former generation. Do not be discouraged, strawberries require minimal effort. It is inevitable older plants are overlooked and produce a second if lesser yield. Compost and mulch are manna for strawberries. 

There are so called “ever bearing” strawberries that offer a larger June harvest and a second, less reliable September yield. All types recall their ancestral habits and naturalize. Take advantage of the strawberry’s roaming ways. Guide runners along borders, under dwarf fruit trees, let them shade out Lady’s Bedstraw among thorny rose bushes. New strawberry plants are easily transplanted and are a staple exchange between gardeners. 

Mail order strawberry plants arrive in tight bundles. Moisten and keep shaded until in the ground. Introduce new types and enjoy comparing varieties for the strawberry that suits you best. 

Strawberries are good neighbors for other plants and often, such as between stones, thrive where few can. Lunaria or “Money Plant” does very well among strawberries. Like strawberries, Lunaria colonizes. A biennial, lunaria’s first year resembles strawberries in height and span. The second spring, lunaria sends up welcome mauve flower stalks. Each fertile bloom matures into silver dollar size seed pods. Harvest the seed pods and bring indoors for dried arrangements. Left to their own, the seed pods are windblown serendipity. Carefully observe the inconspicuous first year’s growth to avoid weeding out. Annual poppies are much the same, many self-sown poppies among strawberries are more viable than those shaken from seed pots moved away or brought indoors for display. 

Innocence once lost cannot be reclaimed. For magical moments, the strawberry clasps on forever. Each strawberry narrates the important moments between us. Nothing rivals tell- tale red lips on a child’s face, always looking up and forward to longer futures. Nobody can make jam like Nana and long gone, remove Dad’s old basket from the rafters. When served with jonny cakes, water not milk, around the kitchen table, strawberries reign supreme in nutrition. This is how urban gardeners grow happy hearts, our own and share with those we love. Don’t wait, plant strawberries. They are uncommonly good. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


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