Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Beginning to Understand Strawberries: Another Perfect Flower


It was back in October when it all started.  Heading into the winter months, when all thoughts on the farm were shifting towards vegetation, a time of calm, internalizing for both plants and farmers.  The fruiting highs of the summer and early fall had come to a close and it was time to let the land rest, but in the greenhouse we were already planning for the next spring.  There is something incredible about this greenhouse's ability to control the environment just enough to allow us to observe plants that might otherwise be locked up by the winter cold.  In the Stone Barns greenhouse, we have no interest in drastically creating micro climates that encourage massive inputs of energy.  Fossil fuels are minimally used only to keep temperatures above freezing, which generally only happens in the coldest winter nights.  During the day, the sun's rays are enough to keep the house in the 50's, sometimes even higher.  We weren't trying to force fruiting summer plants to produce in the winter, rather transplanting strawberries allowed me to observe the incremental metamorphosis a strawberry plant experiences on its way to fruit production.  First the growth of the...
leaves and stems, followed by the eventual growth of the flowers. 

In October, we transplanted these strawberries.  As you can see, they were young, their leaves were small and no flowers or fruit were present.  

But over the next 3 to 4 months we began to see slow development and the eventual flower.  Never having worked with strawberries before, I was green to the fact that the berry was actually produced from the flower.  

As a perfect flower, we know that the strawberry flower contains both male and female organs.  Once each male stamen pollinates the hundreds of tiny ovary glands on the yellow center of the flower, the petals will fall off and the hundreds of ovaries making up the yellow centerpiece will start to swell eventually creating the red strawberry.  

Boom, beautiful, deep red, juicy strawberry forms.  Unlike most fruit which protects it's seeds inside the fruit, strawberry seeds are on the outside (and technically, each of these outer seeds is considered a fruit of its own called an achene, which is a single seeded fruit that combined makes up a strawberry).

Taking a step back, I've been asked a lot about strawberries lately and although I only have limited experience, ours have come in beautifully and I thought it would be good to share what I have done.

Contrary to my belief, strawberries are generally bought as transplants and not sown from seed.  As a wild plant, the probability of getting the same strawberry plant from one of the hundreds of seeds on the fruit is absurdly low, so it's best to leave that to the professionals.  Instead, we took these baby strawberry plants from a nursery and transplanted them into two columns 9'' apart.  This spacing made weeding, cultivating and harvesting much easier than if they were on top of each other and knowing that we wanted to eventually resell these, it was a lot easier to remove them without all of their roots getting tangled.  Spacing will have to be based on the space you have available and the type of production you are looking for.

The Captain pointed out the importance of planting in the soil up to the base of the crown (the portion of the plant in the center, directly above the roots.  It's key to leave the crown exposed otherwise the plant will rot out.

Here's a closer look at the crown, it is the center growth right above the roots and needs to be aboveground.

In early February, we started to see some flowers and eventually fruit begin to form, but since strawberries are light and heat sensitive, it wasn't enough of either to get them to ripen fully.  Here in May, we have just started to see consistently ripe strawberries and interestingly enough, even some of the unripened ones have value as some chefs like to pickle them while they are still young and tart.  

Beautiful and delicious

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