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The Homeowners Column
Giving Thanks for Strawberries
State Master Gardener Coordinator
As a gardener I am thankful for many things. I am thankful that creeping Charlie makes my lawn look lush and green from far away. I am thankful that caterpillars, also known as eating machines, eventually turn into lovely flights of color. And that some plants refuse to die in spite of my care or lack of care.
That I have a loving husband who calmly waits while I enter my glassy eyed trance upon the discovery of a new plant variety.
I am thankful that I can look into the eye of a flower and see the beauty of the whole world. I am thankful that there are still wild places, and that there are people who passionately work to keep them wild. That I have winter to plan and reminisce over last year's garden, but in spring I get another chance to try new things and continue old traditions. I'm thankful that horse manure becomes the black gold of compost. I'm thankful that I get to work with some of the greatest people in the world.
Master Gardeners shared their ideas on what they are thankful for: the first frost so we don't have to pick any more tomatoes; thankful bears are not on our list of garden pests; for garden failures that give us a chance to learn and a reason to buy another plant; thankful that we don't feel the need to carry a gun when we garden; and thankful for the changing seasons so we get second chances and a time to finally rest.
And I'm also thankful for that first taste of that first home grown strawberry. (How's this for a story transition.) I'm thankful that something so wonderful as strawberries is so easy to grow.
However, an important cultural practice in growing strawberries is mulching in winter with straw to protect the plants and the newly developing flowers against extreme cold weather. On your shopping list put a bale of straw and make the family wonder about dinner plans.
Strawberries should be exposed to some light frosts and growth should have stopped before they are mulched. However, plants should be mulched before temperatures fall below 20°F usually around the end of November. Do not wait until the ground is frozen before mulching. If the soil is dry, be sure to water thoroughly a couple days before mulching.
Mulching a strawberry planting has several functions besides just protection from severe cold. In winter it helps to prevent root damage from the drying effects of alternate freezing and thawing of the soil known as frost heaving.
During the growing season mulches conserve soil moisture, help eliminate weeds and keep the berries clean (an important point for quality garden grazing). Mulch can also prevent fruit losses from late freezes in early spring.
A good mulch material is free from weed seeds, does not pack down and cause smothering, does not blow away and is not too expensive. If you can find it, clean wheat straw is a good choice. One of the worst mistakes is to use straw that is full of seeds that can cause next year's weed problems.
If the straw seems full of seedheads, spread the straw out somewhere else first where the seeds can drop and not be a problem. You can do a little straw dance in the lawn to beat the seeds out and amuse the neighbors.
Apply mulch to a depth of three to four inches over the plants and between the rows. This is about two to four bales per 1,000 square feet.
One of the many topics covered in the Master Gardener training is growing fruits. Contact University of Illinois Extension at (217)333-7672 for more information.