Life Lessons through Growing Strawberries

July 14, 2010 § 3 Comments

Gardening is the ultimate learn-as-you-go process. You can read a bunch of books and blogs, listen to people who have gardened for years and seek advice from the local garden center. But, at the end of the day (more often than not, covered in plant particles with dirt under your fingernails), because the health, growth and tastiness of the edibles that you grow depend on the soil, moisture and sunlight conditions on your particular patch of land, you don’t really know what’s going to work until you try — and fail at — it yourself.

In this way, gardening is an excellent allegory for life: you figure it out through trial and error; you evolve and improve as you do it more; and, although you can follow the best-laid plans, myriad factors influence how things turn out, and sometimes you end up with something you didn’t expect.

For a reforming perfectionist such as myself, it’s been a welcome wake-up call. My whole life, I’ve thought through what to do and how to do it, and weighed the pros and cons, before I did it. I experimented with things along the way, too, but usually I had a hypothesis on which way it would go.

Now, I have absolutely no idea! Three months into my discovery that I love gardening, I’m facing up to the fact that I have to let go of the need to have pre-existing knowledge in order to gain know-how by doing.

Take the strawberries. Having never grown them, I sought out and followed the advice I found. And then I had to wait to see what would happen.

I already learned (as described in my earlier post) that pinching the flowers off of the plants works — it allows the plants to focus their energy on getting bigger and stronger, and the plants I pinched are definitely more vigorous than their un-pinched cousins.

Three months later, I’m learning more by doing (for gardening and for life!):

(1) Offense can be the best defense: After seeing birds frolic in my strawberry patch and noticing the slimy trails of slugs in the dirt, I didn’t want to wait around while these backyard citizens snacked on my berries. So I created tiny, sharp fences around the plants by sticking bamboo barbecue skewers in the ground, pointy ends up. (After breaking my skin on them while weeding, I know first-hand that they hurt!) I also covered ripening berries with black socks, which blocked pests and facilitated ripening by absorbing the sun’s heat.

Strawberry in a sock trick

The bamboo fence

(2) Sometimes, accidents yield successes: I kept reading that I shouldn’t pick the strawberries before they were fully red. But without in-person instruction or accurately-colored photographs (neither of which I had), it’s hard to know what “fully red” means. So I picked the handful of berries the plants produced this spring when they seemed sufficiently scarlet. Most of them were slightly tart and disappointing. Then, I accidentally forgot about a strawberry I’d hidden in a black sock for a week. When I “found” it on one of my morning garden tours, it was a deep ruby. And when I picked it and popped it in my mouth, it was perfectly ripe: sweet, with a flavor reminiscent of strawberry jam. I suppose there’s a reason that we have the saying, “patience is a virtue”.

(3) Nature, in the end, will win: According to Golden Gate Gardening (which I did not have before planting the berries), when planting strawberries in the Bay Area, you should plant them in soil that has not had manure in it for at least a year because the plants don’t like the saltiness, and you should plant them in November. I did the exact opposite. I had amended the soil in the strawberry patch with a compost that contained chicken manure immediately before planting, and I put them in the ground in April. For the first month, the plants looked like they might keel over: the leaves were turning scarlet (quite pretty, actually), then turning brown, shriveling and falling off.

Scarlet strawberry leaves

No one I asked could diagnose the cause. The pinched plants weren’t producing any flowers at all, and the un-pinched were producing only one to two flowers at a time. I thought for sure that this patch was going to fail. But, two months later, nature has triumphed.

So far.

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