In more pleasant news, my gardens miraculously escaped harm, and continue to flourish - despite my lack of attention. I've been picking my own delicious big sweet strawberries steadily for the past 3 weeks, a "June-bearing" variety called Tennessee Beauty. The bed I had started two years ago got wiped out by a fungus which I think formed because I had attempted to cut down on weeding by mulching the bed with black landscape fabric, covered with straw. At one end of the black mulch, lots of strawberry baby plants escaped the bed and planted themselves in my bare garden soil, and these survived. I let them grow and prosper, and then harvested lots of rooted babies in the fall. These allowed me to replant the original beds, adding compost to the soil, spacing plants about 12" apart in staggered rows, and not using any mulch. When the flowers began to turn into berries earlier this spring, I put a thin layer of straw around each plant, to keep the ripening berries from sitting in the dirt… makes them nice and clean when picked. I plan to remove the straw after the harvest. Incidentally, note that I said straw, not hay - straw is supposed to be without seeds, while hay will fill your soil with weeds from its seeds. I'll be doing more weeding this year, but hopefully will avoid the fungus problem.
The 4' x 4' bed of "baby" strawberry plants was a thick mass of plants, but I decided to leave it until it finishes bearing fruit this spring. From my side-by-side comparison, I am now convinced that strawberries should be kept in manicured beds, removing the babies, and keeping them spaced out. I've observed the following:
- the neat bed ripens earlier (more sunshine?)
- the neat bed is easier to harvest - vs. hunting among tangled leaves and stems to uncover ripe berries
- the neat bed honestly produces sweeter tasting berries
- the neat bed produces much fewer berries which show critter damage
- we've had relatively dry weather during this harvest time, but I think the mass bed would have had more berries rot from moisture than the neat bed if it had been damp