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Q: How to grow strawberries on weed cloth?

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A: My good friend ZoŽ Bradbury who farms on the South Coast of Oregon as part of Valley Flora Farm grows strawberries on weed cloth, the kind of weed cloth usually used for floors in propagation tunnels, or in other large perennial plantings. If you're going to use plastic in strawberries, which is quite common, I really like her approach as it covers the paths as well as the bed tops, and thus eliminates one of the trickiest parts of growing with plastic mulch: how to weed the pathways without disturbing the plastic. I usually just write about my own farm experience but ZoŽ is someone I know well and whose experience I trust so I'm passing on some notes of hers that she shared with me recently about how she does it. Here's what she wrote me:

...for strawberry weedmat, this is our system for NEW weedmat (we don't have to do all these steps anymore because we now have enough pre-burned weedmat that we are reusing each year):

• I buy 12x300' rolls from Oregon Valley Greenhouse. a 12' wide piece will cover 3 of our beds perfectly (42" on center).

• I bed up first (it's always a little tricky to hit the window just right in the fall in terms of fall rain and tractoring, but I've found that even if it's wetter than I'd like it doesn't matter too much b/c we are always planting our berries in a downpour sometime in November. So the reality is mud, mud, mud and the quality of the "seedbed" ends up being pretty much inconsequential).

• Then roll the new weedmat out over the beds and affix it so it won't slide around (we bend our own ground staples from heavy gauge repurposed electric fence wire and stab them through into the paths where the ground is harder).

• Then use the flame weeder to burn holes every 12", 2 lines to a bed. The first year I burned one small hole the size of the flamer flange, but learned quickly that it slows planting down a lot to have to work in such a tight planting space. Since then, we've burned a bigger hole by stamp-stamp-stamping the hot flamer down on the weedmat in a triangle-ish pattern to make a wider opening. Gives the mature crowns more space, makes planting easier, but also allows for more weeds to grow around the strawbs. Worth it, though.

• Then take the weedmat OFF, pull your drip lines out on the beds, and put the weedmat back on. We loosely hold the drip lines in place with ground staples to try to keep it from sliding around when we are pulling the weedmat back over it, and in the event that our weedmat goes flying in the winter (see next step) maybe our drip lines won't end up in a huge rat tangle.....We also set up our header at this point and connect the lines, but leave the ends of each drip lines unpluggled so we can flush the system when we start irrigating in the spring/summer.

• This next step is critical for us down here in the land of 100 mph winter winds: Figure out a way to hold your weedmat down for the winter! We use a combination of long ground staples (maybe one every 3-5 paces, in every pathway); burying all weedmat edges with dirt (that really helps!); weighting the weedmat with buckets of water (regular 5 gallon buckets can tip over if the wind gets under the weedmat and whips it, so we use those broad-based, shallow, 60# mineral tubs (there is a large supply of free ones down here in the land of many horse owners and sheep and cattle ranchers)); and this year we are also using sandbags ($0.50 apiece, and we filled them with sand from the swimming hole...). So far, the weedmat has blown off at least ONCE every single winter I've been doing this...the most tragic instance being christmas day when i was 9 months preggo...oof). Every year I think I can beat the wind somehow and every year I'm wrong. Hoping the sandbags are the answer this time around. It's a pain to put it back on if it blows off, especially because the weedmat can shrink a little and then not line up with your planted crowns when you try to put it back on....very frustrating. Last year I decided to see if the weedmat was really worth all of the winter windstorm worry and we planted 3 beds without weedmat. The winter grass and weed growth was a mess. We salvaged them in the spring and harvested all season, but needless to say we planted all our berries through weedmat again this year.

• Plant your strawberries. I order mine from Lassen Canyon Nursery since Prather Ranch stopped doing organic crowns. I get them as soon as they are ready to ship, usually in November. We plant immediately. The planting technique we like the best at this point is to dibble a hole with a shovel handle or piece of pipe, then plant the crowns into those dibble holes. Saves a lot of aching hand and trowel work. You'll be amazed to see your strawberries sprouting lime green new leaves within a couple of days of hitting the dirt. We plant new crowns every fall so we have primo berries for sales and CSA, and leave our 2nd year berries for upick. We don't keep any berries longer than 2 years at this point due to diminishing returns...

• Rotate every year...our berry patch has been marching east every year...

• As for fertility, we fertigate eco-nutrients fish emulsion through the drip tape every 3-4 weeks throughout the summer, starting in early June (or as soon as we start irrigating). We put out about 25 gallons of fish per season on 1/3 of an acre, which equates to less than 20 lbs/acre of N. But we get great results and beautiful berries from June until October...

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A photo from a few years back in the late winter. New plants are in the center, second year plants are on the right and no longer need to have the weed cloth held down.

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Summer harvest

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