Strawberry Patch

The first ripe strawberry of the season. The taste tester said, "Success, mom. It's sweet and juicy."

In Pennsylvania, we know we’re on our way to summer and hot days when the strawberries arrive. Sweet and juicy with that satisfying snap when you pluck them from the plant.

Our first post-Memorial Day activity is a trek to Trauger’s Farm to pick strawberries. Under the beating sun (because it’s always 95°F the day we decide to go), we fill our buckets upon buckets with strawberry sweetness as we fill our bellies (don’t tell the folks at Traugers, although I think strawberry smeared all over the kids faces give us away).

My budding chef wrote down our smoothie recipe so I wouldn't forget.

Our favorite strawberry item is smoothies. We freeze the strawberries so we can have smoothies until next April, when we exhaust our stores of frozen fruit. Strawberry cordial gets me through the dark days of winter. Plus there’s strawberry-rhubarb sauce and strawberries with whipped cream, sometimes jam, and any other concoction we can think of until the blueberries come in and become our new favorite.

Over the last few years we’ve worked on a strawberry “patch” in our front flowerbed. It began with a novelty hanging strawberry plant. Last year I added a few more plants in tiered barrels so they send runners for new plants into the barrel below.

For my daughter’s birthday last year we gave strawberry plants as the party favorite. I asked Trauger’s what I needed to do with these tiny plants that looked like no more than scraggly roots. They had very specific directions for caring for these plants. For a Darwinian Gardener like me it seemed very complicated:

“When the strawberries have flowers, pinch the flowers off so they don’t produce fruit this year. In winter cover with straw and then next year they will produce strawberries.”

Yum!

I started off with good intentions, plucking little white flowers. Then, as the plants grew as big as the others, I forgot which were the old plants and which were the new plants. Straw over the plants? I think not. Instead they froze under 3 feet of snow. And unbelievably, we have more strawberries than ever. Further proof that Darwinian gardening works.

Will Weed For Food

This daisy, which opened its petals yesterday, was a result of my Darwinian Gardening. But I'll save that story for another day.

This daisy, which opened its petals yesterday, was a result of my Darwinian Gardening. But I'll save that story for another day.

I am a Darwinian Gardener.

There. I admitted it for all the world to see. And this year I’m going to embrace my role as a Darwinian Gardener.

What is a Darwinian Gardener, you say? We are the people who don’t plan gardens, but rather spontaneously create then, on the spur of the moment, without very little forethought or attention afterward, so the garden becomes an experiment in survival of the fittest.

Here’s how it works: One random day the sun is shining and I think, “I have 2 hours to plant some seeds.” I dig into my seed jar that has seeds from my previous residence (circa 1999), pick out some seed and plant it.

Is it past the frost date? Who knows?

Did you remember to water the starts? Water? Isn’t that why we have rain (even though we haven’t seen a drop for 3 weeks)?

Does it need full sun, partial sun or shade? Huh?

Lettuce doesn’t like heat. Hey, you’re only a quitter until you try planting lettuce in June.

Are those two going to cross-pollinate? Maybe I’ll create a bigger, better more amazing hybrid that will take over the world! Bwah-ha-ha (that’s my evil Darwinian Gardener laugh).

Lamb's quarters getting a drink of rain this morning. And look! Some onion grass, too.

Lamb's quarters getting a drink of rain this morning. And look! Some onion grass, too.

I didn’t become a Darwinian Gardener on purpose. I grew up among 3 enormous gardens. My mom is an amazing gardener who had many things to teach me, but I ignored her because, while my body pulled weeds, my mind dreamed of playing in the woods. And I complained a lot about how hot it was and how hard it was to bend over. Complaining takes a lot of effort.

It’s not as if I couldn’t be a good gardener. I could, if I put the time and effort into it. But right now, my time and effort are spent elsewhere, raising kids, running a small business, maintaining a 100-year-old house and being the craftiest girl on the block.

Oddly enough everyone thinks I’m a good gardener. In my wildlife rehabilitation days, I nurtured all sorts of critters back to health, from red-tailed hawks and great blue herons all the way down to bullfrogs and baby bunnies. So people assume I’m as careful and attentive to plants. I’m not. But that doesn’t stop them from asking me for advice.

My advice: “Put it in the ground and see if it grows.”

And really, I want to have huge, lush gardens. I want to live off the land and say, “I grew that and fed my family.” I dream of vegetable gardens and cutting gardens, terraced with rocks, flowing with fountains, erupting with interesting vegetative textures and colors, filled with whimsical garden ornaments.

A rather funny dream since my yard is barely big enough to accommodate 2 kids, 1 dog, 2 adults, a couple of pea plants and a massive amount of toys.

I have not given up these dreams, but this year I’m letting go of the expectations for big gardens. I’m letting go of the guilt of not getting my peas in by St. Patrick’s day or my lettuce in by… whenever lettuce was supposed to be in the ground.

As my friends discussed seeds and starts, height of pea plants and when the radishes will be done, I realized that Darwinian gardening isn’t just about survival of the fittest plant, it’s about embracing opportunities as a gardener. Two of my grand gardening friends have huge, beautiful gardens and they could use a weeder. A few more friends dove into the deep end without life preservers, signing up for large plots in the local community garden. They’ll definitely need help.

Rather than struggle to get my own garden in, I’ll show up at their gardens with aWill Weed For Food” sign around my neck. I’ll help them be great gardeners and be paid in cucumbers and eggplants.

The opportunities in my “weed patch” abound, as well. The progeny of last year’s pumpkins and tomatoes always sprout up and the birds plant sunflowers up and down the yard. Uncultivated areas are rife with lamb’s quarters, a local weed that is also edible. Think native spinach. Yum.

Don’t worry, I’ll still be throwing seeds in the ground to see who survives. But this year, I’ll do it with pride as a Darwinian Gardener.