Out With The Old, In With The New

“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did,” wrote a Dr. Boteler about the strawberry (as quoted in Izaak Walton’s 17th century classic The Compleat Angler). I disagree. I also don’t like to crawl for my fruit. With that said, I’ll agree that strawberries do taste very good, more so for being, usually, the first fruits of the season.

I just took a look at my strawberry bed; weeds are making inroads and the plants look pretty puny. Dispatching the weeds is no problem. As far as the puny plants, it was to be expected. Although strawberries are perennial plants, over time they pick up diseases, including some virus diseases lacking dramatic symptoms except that they reduce productivity. So a strawberry bed should be replanted — at a new location — every 5 years. My garden notes tell me my strawberry bed is 8 years old.

My strawberry bed in its prime

My strawberry bed in its prime

Strawberries send out shoots, called runners, at the ends of which develop new plants which, in turn, send out runners that also develop new plants, ad infinitum. So an untended bed can become very weedy, with strawberries. Even a well-tended bed sneaks in a few extra plants here and there. None of these plants should be used to start a new strawberry bed! Viruses are systemic, so all these new plants will also carry any virus infection.

I’ll be ordering my new strawberry plants from a nursery that sells certified disease and virus free strawberry plants. Then, at least, the plants start off “clean.”

The Best Berry Of All

If I had authored that quote by Dr. Boteler, I would have applied it to highbush blueberries. Not only are they, in my opinion, the best tasting berry, but the plants are truly perennial, remaining productive for 50 years or more. And I can harvest them standing up.Bunch of blueberries

No one is sure just how long a blueberry bush will thrive because they haven’t been cultivated for very long. It was only about a hundred years ago that Dr. Frank Coville of the USDA started studying blueberries in an effort to learn how to grow them. Previous to that, harvests were from wild plants. Even 50 years ago, fresh blueberries rarely appeared on grocer’s shelves.

Of Strawberries And Intrigue

Strawberries, also, have come into cultivation relatively recently, in this case over the past 200 years. Garden strawberries, that is, which owe their origin to a chance mating of two American species of strawberry in a garden in France.

One parent of the modern garden strawberry is the Virginia strawberry of eastern North America. Plants of this tasty, small-fruited species were brought over to Europe and planted in gardens there as early as the 17th century.

Intrigue enters the story in the arrival of the other parent of the modern, garden strawberry, the Chilean strawberry, to Europe. Moving the clock forward to the beginning of the 18th century, we find the French King Louis XIV needing a spy to observe Spanish fortifications in Concepcion, Chile. For this task, he chooses Amédée Francois Frezier, a young lieutenant colonel who had already distinguished himself with an aptitude for foreign languages and science. Amédée set sail on an armed merchant marine ship in 1712.

Upon his arrival in Concepcion, Chile, Amédée posed as a merchant marine captain, which enabled him to visit Spanish fortifications as a tourist. Secretly, he kept notes and made sketches of ammunition stores and escape routes. Besides military reports, Amédée also wrote about the indigenous peoples, the physical geography, and agriculture of the region. One of the plants that caught the lieutenant colonel’s fancy was the Chilean strawberry, which bore fruits larger than those that were known in Europe. Amédée included descriptions and sketches of the Chilean strawberry in his notes, and when it finally came time to leave Chile in 1714, he packed up five plants to smuggle back for his return voyage.

The marriage of the two species finally took place in a strawberry field near Brest, France as a bee carried pollen from the flower of a Virginia strawberry to the female flower of a Chilean strawberry. A seed from the fruit that developed germinated and grew into a plant that was the first modern, hybrid strawberry, combining the large size of one with the high flavor and intense red color of the other.

Better Strawberries

Since Dr. Boteler and Izaak Walton were writing in the 17th century, that “better berry” to which they referred could not have been the modern, garden strawberry. But other species were enjoyed before the modern species came into being: the alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca), and the musk strawberry (Fragaria moschata). Both species yield delectable, though small, fruits, and are still available today. I’ve grown both.

Musk strawberry

Musk strawberry

Musk strawberry might be the best tasting of all, but yielded very little for me.White alpine strawberries

I’ve grown, and still grow, alpine strawberries, white ones that have a pineapple-y flavor and are ignored, because of their lack of color, by birds. The plants are cold-hardy, don’t make runners, and bear all season long. The fruits are a nice, little treat, but not ones with which you’d fill your freezer. For that, the one to plant is  some variety of the modern, garden strawberry. I’ll be ordering plants of Earliglow.


Watch Out, for Black Walnuts

Citizen scientists (that could be you and me), look up! At black walnut’s leaves. At the recent meeting of the New York Nut Growers Association (, Karen Snover-Clift of Cornell University went over the ins and outs of “thousand cankers disease of walnut.”
    Like Dutch elm disease — it pretty much wiped out American elms, once valued for creating a cathedral effect as their branches arched over tree-line streets — thousand cankers disease is spread by an insect. But the walnut twig beetle is only part of the problem. When it bores into the bark, it spreads a fungus that clogs up a tree’s “tubes.”
    With Dutch elm disease, once a tree is infected, the fungal culprit spreads within the tree to kill it. Not so with thousand cankers disease. With this disease, death comes from fungal infection that follows thousands of dark, dead cankers of insect feeding.
    Who cares about black walnuts? I do. Each fall the trees bear an abundance of nutritious and delicious nuts. (Not delicious to everyone; the strong flavor does not appeal to everyone. But no reason any food should appeal to everyone unless you’re MacDonald’s.) And, quoting from The Tree Book, written in 1914 by Julia Rogers, “The black walnut is majestic as a shade tree — a noble ornament to parks and pleasure grounds. It needs room and distance to show its luxuriant crown and stately trunk to advantage. Then no tree excels it.”

Walnut twig beetle

Walnut twig beetle

    And finally, black walnut yields among the most beautiful of woods for furniture and gun stocks. Again quoting Ms. Rogers, the wood has “silvery grain, rich violet-purple tones in the brown heart wood [and] exquisite shading of its curly veinings.”
    Thousand cankers disease moved into southwestern U.S. from Mexico (would a wall keep them out? will Mexico pay for it?) and has remained mostly in that region. Black walnut is native to eastern U.S., but the tree has occasionally been planted out west. More importantly, the disease has recently reared its ugly head at a few locations in the east. If infected trees can be identified, the disease can be contained to check its spread.

Thousand cankers

Thousand cankers

    Any tree with an infected branch is usually dead by the end of the season!
    So look up, scan the tops of any black walnut trees for limbs that are dead or show flagging foliage. Your job, and my job, is to look for these trees and then report them.
    For a more thorough treatment of thousand cankers disease, as well as reporting guidelines, see A good start in confirming the disease would be to take some good digital photos and send them to the state diagnostic laboratory, the county Cooperative Extension office, or department of environmental conservation.

Chipmunks, Still Cute Here

    I find chipmunks cute, as I’m sure everybody would — except for anyone for whom chipmunk is a garden pest. This year, for some reason, an especially good crop of chipmunks are scurrying about. I see them everywhere, except on my farmden. Their absence here could be attributed to my dog friends Sammy and Scooter, and my cat friend Gracie.
    I would not tolerate chipmunks if they were to eat my blueberries, my filbert nuts, my . . . pretty much anything I’ve painstakingly planted and nurtured. Besides dogs and cats, traps also are effective.

No, I’m Not a Strawberry Pest

    As if plants didn’t have enough pest problems. I recently attacked my strawberry bed with my scythe, swinging the sharp blade low enough to cut off every last leaf from the plants. No, I’m not just another plant pest, trying to kill plants; I was “renovating” the bed, preparing it for next spring.
    Shearing off the leaves not only removes leaves, but also disease spores on the leaves that inevitably find their way into any strawberry bed. Obviously, I raked up the old leaves and carted them over to the compost pile.
    The next step in renovation was to pull out any weeds in the bed. The major weed in the bed was  . . . strawberries. Strawberries spread by creeping stems along which grow new plants that take root, making them usually their own worst weed. Each plant needs about a square foot of elbow room to realize its full potential of one quart of berries per plant.
    So I ruthlessly ripped out enough plants so that my 3-foot-wide bed was left with a double row of plants spaced a foot apart. Older plants get decrepit with age, so those were the first to go.Spreading compost in strawberry bed
    Finally, icing on the cake. I laid a 1 inch depth of compost all over the bed and tucked up to each of the remaining, leafless strawberry crowns. A little fertilizer and straw, pine needle, wood shavings, or any other weed-free organic material would be almost as good.
    It’s been a few weeks and already new leaves are sprouting. The plants are on their way to a healthful and healthy crop of sweet, juicy berries next spring.Strawberry plants, a few weeks after renovation