Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Berry Patch: ‘Thou Shalts’ and ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ of Strawberry Planting

Delivery box of strawberry plants
As my bundle of 25 Allstar strawberry plants sat in our refrigerator while I waited for our rare but frigid weather to warm to my liking, I studied up on strawberry planting. As I leafed through the Indiana Berry & Plant Co. “Planting Guide” and the company’s catalog I started jotting down a list of “Thou Shalts” and “Thou Shalt Nots” that I thought important. 

1.  Thou shalt open the box and follow directions.  That’s where I found the “Planting Guide.”

2.  Thou shalt not plant strawberries in a shady, wet bed.  “Strawberries can be grown in most soil types; however, a good, well-drained loam soil will consistently produce a better crop.  Select an area that will receive full sun most of the day.  Avoid shaded areas and any place where water will stand after a rain as standing water can greatly increase the chances for disease.  Also avoid areas prone to spring frosts.”

Bag of plants fresh out of the box
3.  Thou shalt keep the plants in a cool location if you’re not going to plant them immediately.  I planned to plant them in three or four days because our weather was unseasonably warm but frost was forecast.  I stored my bundle of Allstars in our refrigerator.

4.  Thou shalt not keep your plants in the freezer.  Strawberries survive winter weather once they’re planted in the garden bed, so what’s the problem?  The problem is that the plants in the bundle have bare roots and have been stored at 32°F at Indiana Berry.  The 0° temperature of your food freezer will damage the bare roots.  If you can’t plant immediately, relax, because the “plants will keep up to 4 weeks if kept at 35 degrees,” which is the approximate temperature of most refrigerators.

5.  Thou shalt “plant when weather is cloudy and cool to prevent roots from drying out.”  I planted late in the day, during the last hour of sunlight, and the weather was cool.

The bundle of 25 Allstar plants
6.  Thou shalt “use a trowel to make a hole by pressing it back and tipping to both sides.  Spread the roots carefully and firm soil around the roots, leaving no air pockets.”  I made a furrow with my Warren hoe and then spread the roots and firmed soil around them.  “If soil is dry, pour a pint of water around each plant.”  I sprinkled with a hose.

7.  Thou shalt “set the plants at the correct depth.  Do not trim roots and do bend roots to fit the hole.  The base of the crown should be at the level of the soil surface.  Plants too deep will smother, … and plants too high will dry out.”  The guide and the catalog both illustrate proper planting depth.

8.  Thou shalt not fertilize at planting time because the fertilizer can damage the few tender roots.

Two weeks after planting
9.  Thou shalt “see new green growth in 7 to 10 days.”

I planted the 25 Allstars on April 3 and watered them most mornings because we’re having an uncommonly dry spring.  Within a week, they started putting out new leaves, and at two weeks all plants had leaves.  Over the next few months the Allstars will be establishing themselves and I’ll be caring for them according to “the directions.”  When they start flowering and putting out runners, I’ll post again about what I’m doing—and why.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Berry Patch: Grow Strawberries Again?

Should I start another bed?
Decisions, decisions, decisions.  For 10 years or so I’ve grown strawberries here at Meadow Glenn.  Three years ago, when the last planting petered out after five or six years, I started thinking about planting a new bed.

I missed having our own strawberries, but I thought of two reasons why I shouldn’t replant.  First, fresh strawberries are available at food stores almost every day now from California, Florida, and even Chile and Argentina.  And second, strawberries seem to grow closer to the ground than when I was younger—with my Aching Back reminding me of that curiosity of plant evolution.

But I also thought of several reasons why I should plant another bed.  Store-bought strawberries—like store-bought tomatoes—are tough specimens designed for long trips to markets, and it seems to me they just don’t taste like those that you pick 20 feet from the kitchen door.  Also, most store-bought fruit is sprayed with who-only-knows-what pesticides, fungicides, and whatever-else-cides—and I can absolutely control what I spray on my own strawberries—including no spray at all.

Six of one, half dozen of the other—or was that two sides of the same coin?  Well, it was decision-making time. 

“Ellen, do you think I should order some strawberry plants?”  I outlined the arguments for her.

“Of course, we should grow strawberries.”

My ultimate decider had decided.

But which of the scores of strawberry varieties should I buy—June-bearing or everbearing?—early season, early midseason, late midseason, late season?

My first stop was to check out the strawberry information tucked here and there in the “Small Fruits” chapter of the “University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener Handbook.”  And then I found a helpful website featuring loads of information just about strawberries:, which identifies itself as “The ONE stop for EVERYTHING related to strawberry plants and growing strawberries.”  Yes, they do SHOUT on that site, but I read and made notes.

I decided to order June-bearing plants, rather than the newer—at least to me—everbearing.  A June-bearing variety produces more fruit over about a two-week period, while the everbearing varieties bear fewer fruit but over the whole summer basically.  June-bearing plants generally are allowed to expand into narrow beds, while everbearing plants generally are hilled and require more attention.  Everbearing plants, if you think about it, are probably the reason we have fresh strawberries year-round.  Every day they’re blooming and producing fruit somewhere in the world.

The strawberryplants website also had a useful chart showing the overlap of the various categories of June-bearing plants, such as “early season” and “late midseason.”  Since plants generally come in bundles of 25, should I order 25 early- season plants and 25 late-season plants so I might be picking fresh strawberries for about three weeks?

At that point, my Aching Back became a factor.  Stooping to pick strawberries is one thing, but standing back up sometimes is another.  I went to the garden and surveyed possible planting sites.  If I plant along the high walls of our raised-bed terraces, I can sit on the concrete blocks and pick with minimum stooping or bending.  A quick look at those areas convinced me that 25 plants would be plenty.

What variety?  I had looked at the recommendations in the “Handbook,” and the strawberryplants site listed varieties recommended by various state agencies.  When I was thinking two varieties, I had settled on 25 Earliglow, which would fruit from Day 1 to 12 of the season and 25 Allstar, which would fruit from Day 10 to 22.

Since I have room for only 25 plants, I decided to order the Allstar variety because that variety will bloom later and be less threatened by late frost.

Where to order?  I went back to the strawberryplants site again and learned that Allstar plants are available from 24 listed retailers.  I ordered from Indiana Berry & Plant Co. for the irrational reason that the company name sounds like a good place to order strawberry plants.

My bundle of 25 Allstar plants cost $16.50 plus $10.00 shipping.  I received an email from Indiana Berries saying the plants would ship March 28.  They arrived March 30.

As the UPS driver handed me the small brown box, I said, “Oh, great.  My strawberries.”
The driver gave a quizzical look at the box as he handed it to me.

“Oh … my strawberry plants.”

Since I wasn’t going to plant them for several days, I put the box into the refrigerator to help keep them dormant.

In my next posting, I’ll show you the bundle of 25 Allstar plants—and tell you why I planted them the way I did.

If you want more information about growing strawberries, I suggest you take a look at the “” website.  CLICK HERE.

If you want to look at the Indiana Berry & Plant Co. website, where you can browse online or order a catalog, CLICK HERE

To check out the University of Maryland Extension’s Publication HG68,” Getting Started with Small Fruits,” CLICK HERE.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Newspaper 'Clippings' about Gardening

Ready to sit back and enjoy recent Washington Post gardening columns?  Here are six you might find interesting:

Become a garden anarchist:  “Call it boot camp, and not all volunteers make it” by Barbara Damrosch, “A Cook’s Column,” March 8, CLICK HERE.

The weed that’s been shooting at you:  “Seedpod with a hair trigger” by Patterson Clark, “Urban Jungle,”  April 10, CLICK HERE.

How to toughen up your veggie seedlings:  “Preparing your little seedlings for the real world” by Barbara Damrosch, “A Cook’s Garden,” April 12, CLICK HERE.

Kale—right and wrong:  “Snow, sleet and kale—a wintry mix” by Barbara Damrosch, “A Cook’s Column,” March 22, CLICK HERE.

What the shouting is about:  “How scientists manipulate the genetics of crops” by Brian Palmer, “How & Why,” March 6, CLICK HERE.

Why flowering pears are sprouting everywhere:  “Pretty tree going rogue” by Patterson Clark, “Urban Jungle,” March 20, CLICK HERE.

Articles titles in the online Post will differ from those from the print edition, but the text will be the same.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Clean Water Begins at Home

Sylvia says the height of your grass
can make a difference.

If charity begins at home, so should clean water, says Sylvia, a member of the Bay-Wise Committee of the University of Maryland Extension Howard County Master Gardener program.

“Some of our major pollution problems—such as algae-laden ponds—result from fertilizer run-off from neighborhood lawns,” Sylvia explained.  “Since scores of homeowners contribute to this problem, we’ll take a step toward solving that problem every time a homeowner chooses to do lawn care in ways that protect our waterways.”

Intrigued, the Ancient Gardener asked Sylvia to explain her thinking.

Ancient Gardener:  What are simple, practical steps I can take to help clean up local ponds and streams?

Sylvia:  Read a good fact sheet about responsible lawn care, perform a soil test, and don’t over-fertilize.  When you fertilize, use fertilizers with a high percentage of water-insoluble nitrogen (WIN) and no phosphate unless the soil test indicates that you need it.  Keep the fertilizer off your sidewalks, driveways, and other impervious surfaces, where rain can wash it into local storm sewers that will end up in a pond, lake, or stream.  One of our local ponds is green and stinky in the summer because it’s full of algae that fed on the nutrients from fertilizers running out of neighborhoods and into the drains that end up at the pond.

Sylvia keeps her lawn mowed
between 3 and 3.5 inches.
Ancient Gardener:  What publication do you recommend?

Sylvia:  A great place to start is the University of Maryland Extension’s newly revised HG102, “Lawn Establishment, Renovation, and Overseeding.”  It covers a wide range of environmentally sound lawn-care principles, from pre-planting decisions to seeding, care and maintenance, renovation, even common turf problems.  It’s available free online, where you can read it, print it out, or download it for future reference.

Ancient Gardener:  Once I have a nice lawn and control the fertilizer, what should I do next?

Sylvia:  Keep your grass mowed to between three and three and a half inches.  Grass that length shades its own roots during the hot summer months and reduces weeds and thatch.  Leave the clippings right on the lawn, where they’ll provide about a pound of nitrogen per thousand square feet a year.  Mow frequently enough that you remove only the top third of the grass blades at a time.

Ancient Gardener:  What about watering my lawn?

Sylvia sweeps fertilizer onto lawn
to keep it from entering runoff.
(Photo by Sylvia)
Sylvia:  Actually the best grasses for most of the mid-Atlantic area are tall fescues, which are cool-season varieties that naturally go dormant in hot, dry weather.  Let them enjoy life naturally.  Let them go dormant.  Don’t water them.  They’ll revive when cool weather returns in late summer.  If you water, do so early in the morning to minimize disease problems and then only water up to one inch at a time so run-off doesn’t carry nutrients, pesticides, or herbicides into the storm-water system or directly into a nearby pond or stream.

Ancient Gardener:  Why do I see so many lawn-fertilizer advertisements in the spring and so few in the fall?

Sylvia:  They are selling fertilizer.  The best time to fertilize cool-season grasses is September and October.  The brochure has charts with recommendations.

Ancient Gardener: What’s considered best today in lawn care?

Sylvia:  Many homeowners are downsizing their lawns and upsizing their gardens with groundcovers, perennials, shrubs, and trees.  Gardens absorb much more runoff than turf does.  They reduce the sediment and pollutants that go into our waterways.  In the process they provide protection, food, and homes for wildlife.

Ancient Gardener:  The last word?

Sylvia:  A lawn that never has fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides applied is the friendliest to our neighborhood ponds and streams and to our great waterways, such as the Chesapeake Bay.

To link to the University of Maryland’s publication HG102 on lawn care, CLICK HERE.
If you want to review the earlier posting, “Clean Water: Does Your Lawn Measure Up?” CLICK HERE.

Fertilizer runoff can turn a sparkling pond into a smelly algae pit.
(Photo by Columbia Association)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Deer Country: Putting Our Hostas on the ‘Pill’

Will these tablets keep
deer away from our hostas?

I started my 2012 deer repellent test yesterday by putting our hostas on the “pill,” the new Repellex Systemic tablet for plants that claims to repel all sorts of critters—deer, rabbits, moles, voles, gophers, groundhogs, feral hogs, cats, and dogs.

The directions on the label seem simple enough: For a small plant, use one tablet for every foot of the plant’s height and width.  I used two tablets for each of two large clumps of hostas and one tablet for each of two small clumps of hostas.  A large clump of hostas about 12 feet away will be my untreated control.  As directed, I pushed each dime-size tablet an inch or more below the soil surface “2-3 inches away from the root crown.”  I then watered the plants to activate the tablets.

You may recall that last year I experimented with mint-based Deer Out repellent spray, and our local bambits ignored our hostas all summer.  When I used the spray, I could easily see that I had hit all major parts of each hosta and had no question about whether I had applied it correctly.

Will a dime-size tablet work the whole summer?
I didn’t get that same feeling of certainty when I “positioned” the Repellex Systemic tablets.  Just where is the “crown” of a clump of hostas?  To measure a hosta clump’s height, do I measure just leaves—or do you include the towering flower stalk?  Will two tablets be enough for the tangled mass of roots of a hosta clump to take up and infuse all the leaves sufficiently to make them deer repellent?

Questions, questions, questions.

I’ll report back occasionally with, hopefully, some answers, answers, answers.

If you missed my earlier posting about the new Repellex Systemic tablets and how they work, CLICK HERE.

If you want to see my final posting about Deer Out, the mint-based repellent spray, CLICK HERE.