Fruit for the Month: April, and all-year summary

Reliable rhubarb, the earliest fruit. Photo Bridget Aleshire

This is the last of my monthly series about small fruits that grow in the Mid-Atlantic and other places with a similar climate. Here are links to each of the other posts:

March: Rhubarb

February: Blueberries

January: Grapes

December: Quince

November: Persimmons

October: Fall Raspberries

September: Watermelons

August: Grapes

July: Melons

June: Blueberries

May: Strawberries

The focus fruit for April is still rhubarb, as it was in March

The book, Rhubarbaria by Mary Prior.

I have just learned about a fascinating book, Rhubarbaria, by Mary Prior, published in the UK by Prospect Books 2009. (The book is available in the US, both new and used.)

This is the first British book devoted to rhubarb recipes through the ages, from around the world, as well as rhubarb history. Rhubarb was first grown in Mongolia, Siberia and the Himalayan foothills, for the medicinal uses of the root. Gerald’s Herbal of 1597 says that the dried root was imported to Britain for use as a blood purifier. Early culinary uses are as likely to be with fish or meat, as they are for desserts. See March’s recipe idea which combines roasted rhubarb with grilled mackerel.

As a dessert item, rhubarb became a familiar staple after the enslavement of people in the Caribbean on sugar plantations led to cheap sugar, from around 1840. The common or slang name for rhubarb in the US, is pie plant (Merriam-Webster dates this name from 1838). In England, the Victorian royal chef Charles Francatelli, included rhubarb pie in his Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852)

A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes

Rhubarb is slug-proof, and resistant to both drought and flooding.

Other small fruits still available in April

Dried and frozen fruits, jams, jellies, chutneys, other preserves, or even stored apples and pears are all we are likely to have, apart from buying imports. Remember that vegetables are at least as nutritious as fruit, but simply have fewer sugars. The vitamin C content of green leafy vegetables is as high as oranges.

Other fruit care in April in the mid-Atlantic

Weed and mow aisles between fruit bushes as needed. Provide 1” (2.5cm) of water each week if nature doesn’t. Finish pruning any fruit bushes and canes you haven’t yet dealt with.

If you plant strawberries in spring, you need to pinch off the flowers the first year, to strengthen the plants for a good yield in year two.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Pinch flowers off any new spring-planted strawberries. (If you planted in the fall, your plants should have big enough roots to support a harvest without stunting the plants for the second year.) Cover strawberries if frost threatens after flowering has started.

We used to have a coordinated plan of rowcover use that minimized rolling up and storing rowcovers, only to need them again soon after. We would move the rowcovers and sticks from overwintered or spring planted spinach directly to the strawberry beds before flowering. By that point, the cold-hardy spinach was better off without rowcover. We would already have moved rowcover from turnips, senposai, and early cabbage as needed for broccoli, until the end of April, when the broccoli would have hardened off and benefit more from ambient temperatures. By that point, the watermelons needed rowcover. In mid-April we would take rowcover from kale, collards, and early lettuce for the frost-tender crops.

Two rows of floricane raspberries with a willow and grapes in the background. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Thin raspberries to six canes per foot (30 cm) of row. For beds wider than 1 row, thin to 2” (5 cm) apart.

If you care about large grapes, it is time to thin the fruitlets in the bunches, we grow mostly Concord types, which make delicious juice (especially after storing a few months to mature). We don’t thin at all.

Special Topic for April: Books about Fruits

See my book reviews of

Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts by Levy and Serrano

Farming on the Wild Side, The Evolution of a Regenerative Organic Farm and Nursery, Nancy and John Hayden

The Berry Grower, by Blake Cothron

Pawpaws, The Complete Growing and Marketing Guide by Blake Cothron

For the Love of Pawpaws by Michael Judd

If you have a suggestion for the topic for the upcoming annual monthly series on a type of food crop, please leave a comment.

Strawberry propagation, Heritage Harvest Festival



GFM-September 2013-cover-300pxThe September issue of Growing for Market is out. For this issue I wrote about our efforts to find a sustainable method of growing strawberries. We now use landscape fabric with holes melted in it, and keep the plants for two years. We are rebuilding after some years when the weeds overcame our previous beds, which had organic mulch (newspaper and hay). Our plan is to have two patches, and till in the two-year old one after harvest (after removing the landscape fabric and drip tape of course!), and make one new patch each summer. We’re a bit late this summer, but the system has promise, and I am optimistic!

Our new strawberry bed, using landscape fabric.  Credit Wren Vile
Our new strawberry bed, using landscape fabric.
Credit Wren Vile

In the past we have tried buying dormant plants in the spring (disadvantage: needing to weed the plants the first year and getting no fruit until the following year); buying plugs in fall (disadvantage: expensive) and various methods of propagating our own plants (mixed results).

We have tried keeping the plants for four years (disadvantage: way too much weeding); keeping the plants for two years (better); and accidentally keeping the plants for one year only (disadvantage: expensive).

We have tried organic mulch (disadvantage: lots of weeding); black plastic (disadvantage: unsustainable use of fossil fuels, and disposal was a pain); and now – landscape fabric. You can read all about how we do that in GfM.

As for the various methods of propagation, our current favorite is to grow our own plug plants from runner tips, using a home-built mister/fogger system. Our traditional method of propagating was to prepare new beds in late summer, then dig up runners from the paths or beds of the established plants and move them directly to the new beds. Success with these “Fresh Dug” plants relies on two weeks of intensive watering after planting. We also tried a method that worked well for me in England – pegging runners (still attached to the mother plants) down into small pots of soil for a few weeks until they had rooted, then snipping them from their mother plants and setting out a new bed. This works in rainy climates, or with overhead irrigation, but it didn’t work for us once we switched to drip irrigation. What a lot of trial and error!

New strawberry plants popped into the holes in the landscape fabric. Credit Wren Vile
New strawberry plants popped into the holes in the landscape fabric.
Credit Wren Vile

In my article, I mentioned cutting “runner tips.”  These are small unrooted runners, that need potting up and keeping alive for 4-6 weeks to grow into plugs. Here are instructions for the 6-8 week method we use when we propagate our own plants:

  • July 1-7: Fill 50-cell plug flats with screened compost. Water to activate the soil
  • July 8-14: Harvest runner tips or young runners, using pruners. Clip with ½” of the runner attached, to act as an anchor for the young plant. Choose runner tips with
    • 2 or 3 open leaves 2½-4” long (not more, not fewer, the researchers say).
    •  “Pegs” or nubs of developing roots, or roots up to ½” in length.
    • Large diameter crowns – pencil thickness if possible. Large = more flowers next year.
    • First or second position on the runner, not more distant from the mother.
    • Clip off any secondary runners coming from the daughter plants.
    • Sort the tips by size, planting that same day in 50 cell plug flats with like-sized tips, for best results.
    • Put the flats in a coldframe, water well, cover with thin white poly sheet (bin liner type), lightly perforated. Add shadecloth. Keep moist by watering daily as needed.
  • July 15-21: Continue daily watering. Remove shadecloth. Count live plants, harvest and pot more as needed.
  • July 22-28: Continue daily watering. Remove plastic, replace with rowcover. Harvest and pot more as needed.
  • July 29-Aug 4: Continue daily watering. Remove rowcover. Harvest and pot more if needed.
  • Aug 5-11: Continue daily watering. Harvest and pot more if needed. Remove shadecloth, plastic, rowcover from later harvested plants when appropriate.
  • Aug 12-Sept 1: Plant two staggered rows with plants 12” apart in all directions. Choose the biggest healthiest plants – it makes a lot of difference to the yield!

I reckon in our climate mid-September is about the last date for planting out new strawberries. If we miss that date, we should probably wait till February and lose a year’s production. Sad thought.

I want to explain how the 1/2″ of runner acts as a peg to hole the runner tip in the soil. No-one explained this to me when I first tried it, and at first it made no sense. Push the anchor at about a 45 degree angle into the soil in the plug flat. When the anchor is all in the soil,  press down with your thumb on the side of the crown of the plant opposite the anchor and turn the plant to stand it up. When you get it right it’s a wonderful thing – quick and elegant.

And I should say that propagating from unpatented varieties is fine, but propagating from patented varieties, even for your own use, is annoying illegal.

home-hhf-2013Meanwhile, I’m preparing my presentations for the Heritage Harvest Festival. If you are anywhere in central Virginia, consider going to this lovely event at Monticello, near Charlottesville. The weather forecast is very pleasant, the setting is delightful. Saturday 9/7 is the day. Click the link to read about the schedules, the vendors and the fun events. On Friday at 9am I’m doing a presentation on Asian Greens (there’s still some $10 tickets available for that one) and on Saturday at 10.30 I’m doing Succession Planting. That one is sold out. I’ll also be doing book signings at the Monticello Store after each of my workshops.

After the weekend, I’ll post my slideshows on, and probably embed one in my next blog post, for those who miss the live show, and those that want to watch it again.