I grew up with a deep appreciation for strawberries. My green-thumb dad worked in strawberry research, and he was always bringing home flats of fresh berries. I have good memories of visiting the university greenhouses and research ranch where he worked and taking walks through rows and rows of strawberry mounds. Later, in high school, I did a series of pictures for a photography class assignment showing all the different stages of strawberry plants through the season–tiny plants progressively growing into larger plants, white flowers, green fruit, and the delicious final product.
Many years later, I found myself living on an island with a history of strawberry agriculture. Many of the strawberry farms on Vashon were owned by Japanese-American farmers who were forced to abandon their farms when they were interned during WWII. Sadly, strawberry farming has declined since then, and now we have a Strawberry Festival every July with carnival rides and a parade and live music, but hardly a fresh berry in sight. Luckily, local gardeners can still have a lot of success with growing strawberries at home, so of course I had to try it. It feels like my childhood relationship with strawberries has come full circle.
The first couple of years that I grew strawberries here, I planted them as bare-root plants in long, narrow raised beds. After the first year of runners, they formed a lush hedge with tons of berries. Unfortunately, I was always was afraid to reach in there to pick the berries because the hedge provided a nice canopy for delightful garden critters such as snakes and large spiders. And my wife, who is deathly afraid of snakes, would go nowhere near them. On top of that, we had covered them with bird netting, and little birds kept getting stuck in it, which seemed needlessly cruel. To make matters even worse, the deer ended up chewing through the netting halfway through last summer, and ate half the plants in a single night. With all of these issues, I knew that this year I wanted to start over and plant my berries in a different type of bed inside our new deer-proof garden fence. We decided to try planting them vertically, in stacks of rain gutters mounted to our fence posts.
Gutter gardens are great because they keep the berry plants up off the ground (no canopy to hide creepy-crawly things), and the berries are at a convenient height for picking. Gutters also make very cost-effective garden beds–we used 10-foot-long plastic gutters and they only cost about $4 each. We made two stacks of 5 tiers (or 10 gutters total), and I planted the strawberries on every other rung. I’m hoping to be able to tuck the runners into the empty tiers at the end of the season. We used triangular pieces of scrap wood as corbels to hold the weight of the gutters once they were filled with garden soil. We drilled holes directly into the gutters in order to screw them to the corbels and the posts. We also drilled plenty of holes in the bottoms of the gutters for drainage, and ran drip line down each gutter for irrigation.
My berries this year were very small, but very flavorful. I think a really good strawberry isn’t just sweet and bland. There is a fresh strawberry flavor that is a little tart and tangy, and you can’t ever buy strawberries this good in the store. Gutter beds like these would also work well for growing lettuce and greens from seed, and also make nice window boxes for small succulents and flowers. I’ll have to see how my strawberry plants fare over the winter in these beds. I’m happy to continue experimenting with strawberry growing until I get it just right… I guess it’s a family tradition. 🙂