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My Own Little Strawberry Festival

I planted 18 strawberry plants today, and I’m so happy with myself I could spit.

I extended my garden another 8 feet to the east to make room for the berries. That wasn’t where I originally planned to put them but that space will work out nicely. My garden is now three times bigger than it was a month ago!

Strawberries are my all-time favorite fruit since I was a kid. The first house I remember living in, from age 4-7 in Ohio, had a strawberry patch, and my mother used to bake a shortcake every year, right off the back of a Bisquick box. (That recipe’s rather leaden, but kids don’t know any better.) I was in heaven. My brother Steve used to get sick, he’d eat so many berries. We decided he was allergic, which left more for me!

We moved back to Indiana once I finished first grade, never lived in the country again and never had a strawberry patch either.

The berries you buy in a carton at the store are these gigantic things from California; they look fantastic but they’re not sweet, flavorful or juicy. The smaller berries we grow around here are the opposite; guess which I prefer.

They look good, they travel well, but the taste is inferior.

As I grew up I remember driving to a nearby town with my Grandma; in berry sesaon we’d see roadside stands out in the country, which is how you got the freshest, best produce then, some lady selling a few quarts out of a shed. Grandma would stop and look at the berries, but often she wouldn’t buy because of the price. The berries sure looked good to me, and the money didn’t seem like much, but Grandma was not going to pay an extra dime a quart. “We’ll find some others,” she’d say as we got back in the car and drove away. Of course there weren’t any others anywhere, to the great consternation of a little boy.

Grandma was 31 years old when the stock market crashed in 1929, and for the rest of her life she darned socks and saved string, “tinfoil” and Christmas wrap in a drawer. My brothers thought she was a cheapskate and didn’t like her, for that and other reasons, while I understood why she did what she did. Strawberry pie is a whole lot better than gooseberry pie; she had two gooseberry bushes in the backyard, so those were free. (And tasted like it, unless she had ice cream. Gooseberries are sour, fit only for geese.)

My brothers always had somewhere else to go when the gooseberry pie came out.

Episcopalians in the Midwest are very fond of holding strawberry festivals as fundraisers. Christ Church Cathedral has a big one every year (six tons of berries, 18,000 shortcakes) on Monument Circle as the ladies raise money for mission work; my home parish in Lafayette sells berries at the Round the Fountain Art Fair on the courthouse lawn, with lots of volunteers dipping furiously. Michael Martin, a parishioner and pencil artist, shows his new work there, along with a lot of other state and regional artists; I just bought one of his prints. In my book-in-progress, a strawberry fest is the big spring fundraiser for Jamie’s House, a fictional domestic violence shelter in Bexley.

Someday maybe I can have my own strawberry soirée!

The seedling directions said to plant in rows three feet apart, with 1 1/2 feet between plants in a row. This is because strawberry plants spread by sending out runners on top of the ground. I only had room for three rows of four plants that way, which left me with half a dozen plants left over, so I split the difference and got all 18 in the ground. I figure the runners are going to go wherever they want and it’s not going to hurt them to be a little closer together for awhile. Eventually the “mother” plants will die off while the runners take root and start producing instead. As long as my plants get established I’ll be happy.

In her later years my mother started another strawberry patch at her last house. Her health started to deteriorate, so I moved in with her, and one of my jobs every morning starting in late May was to go out and gather her berries, hundreds of them every day. I learned something; do not plant strawberries right next to the house, because you won’t be able to reach them all when you’re sitting at the edge. You have to be able to move all around your patch. I will be able to do that with my garden.

She had an easy method of making strawberry freezer jam that worked nicely; clean the berries, crush half of ’em (Indiana berries are juicy, Lucy), add sugar, bring to a boil, add a packet of Sure-Jell, boil another minute, then ladle into leftover pickle jars, screw on lids and stick ’em in the freezer. Nothing to it and your strawberry fest lasts all year!

But what about the shortcake? The Bisquick version is heavy and fairly tasteless (everything made of Bisquick tastes like a biscuit); you could hurt somebody if you threw it at their head.

If we dropped Bisquick shortcakes on Pakistan, Al Qaeda would surely give up.

The little Twinkie-like “shortcake shells” you find at the grocery won’t hurt anybody but they’re for people who can’t cook and don’t care what they taste like. Some versions on Recipezaar call for baking a yellow or white cake from a mix; they may be lovely but they’re not shortcakes. Maybe I need to get over the “shortcake” idea altogether, even though it was imprinted on my brain from childhood. (Did my mother throw one at me?)

Strawberries on a slice of pound cake would be good; but, aha, I know what I’ll do, combine berries with my favorite kind of cake: angel food, ’cause I’m mommy’s little yadda-yadda.

These berries I planted say they are “everbearing,” while my mother always had one big crop in May and June. Here’s what about.com says about the plants I bought:

Everbearing strawberries produce two to three harvests of fruit intermittently during the spring, summer and fall. Everbearing plants do not send out many runners.

Later it says there aren’t many runners because the plants put all their energy into producing three crops a year. I’ll believe it when I see it. I love the idea of fresh strawberries in August and October, but the key will be how these babies taste. Maybe I should have bought plants like my mother had…

Oh well, I am not my mother! And this is all an experiment anyway; it’s called gardening. The only thing more fun than the growing is the eating.++

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Strawberryman!

One Response

  1. A link to your blog came up on my strawberry shortcake blog…. I like my biscuits…. so thought I’d link it here.

    Enjoy your writing 🙂

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