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My Secret Strawberry Patch

On those rare occasions when I keep a secret from my wife, I knowingly do it at my peril.

So it was with my Secret Strawberry Patch.

One difference with this secret was that I told it to everyone else in the family.

“Did Grandma find the strawberries yet?” grandsons would whisper conspiratorially.

“Not that I know of,” I would whisper back. “If she’s seen them, she hasn’t said anything about it, and I think she’d say something.”

Honey gets furious with me now and then, reading me out over something I did or failed to do. “Wasting” 60 bucks on a hundred strawberry sets (again) that I wasn’t going to take care of (again) could very well earn me an unpleasant session of spousal fire and frost (again.)

(I could at this point discuss my belief that women in general hold grudges longer than men do, but I think this column will get me in enough trouble enough as it is.)

TO EXPLAIN WHY planting a strawberry patch should get me into Dutch with my generally loving, thoughtful, forgiving wife, I must give you a brief history of my fruitless (sorry) quest to cultivate strawberries.

As a young boy I wanted a strawberry patch. This was about 1960, when we lived in a small frame house, appropriately named the Little House, on a hill in front of Red Bailey’s hayfield. My dad planted a strawberry patch for me by Red’s hayfield, and I let it go to weeds.

Every strawberry patch I’ve ever grown has gone to weeds. A boy of 10 can be forgiven. Even a boy of 30, the first time it happens. For a boy of 40, 50, 60, forgiveness is a rare commodity.

Why did I fail with strawberries, when my vegetable garden and fruit growing efforts have generally been so successful?

The short answer is: strawberries are hard. I know it is true, yet I see others growing wonderful strawberries with apparently little effort. I’m sorry if I sound bitter.

Strawberries need to be mulched and rigorously weeded. All the instructions stress pinching off all the blooms the first year, so that the plant may put its energies into growing big and strong. This will produce, in theory, large and bountiful strawberries the second season.

Then there are the runners. Oh, the runners. You have to pinch them off, too.

Runners are long shoots or stems that radiate out from the main plant. At the end of each runner is a new baby strawberry plant that, given the opportunity, will root and send out runners of its own, which will root and send out runners of their own, which will . . . you get the picture.

“WHY ARE WE pinching off the blossoms?” asked my daughter Shark. I had recruited Shark and her two boys, Lamppost Head and The 747 to help with the pinching after showing them my secret two rows of strawberry plants in the garden.

“Think of them as girls,” I explained. “They are too young to be having babies of their own.”

As to why I think I can succeed this time, the answer is simple: plastic mulch. Planting in plastic mulch obviates most of the weeding, giving me more time to do all the pinching-off. My headstrong truck farmer neighbor, Swartzy, got me into plastic mulch last year. He lends me his tractor attachment which makes four-inch raised beds with four-foot-wide black plastic film stretched over them.

I have been very conscientious about pinching off blossoms and runners, and my strawberry plants have responded with vigorous growth. Right there in the garden, only two rows over from the green pole beans she regularly picks, I knew Honey would see them sooner or later.

Yet the whole summer went by and she never said a word.

Tunnel vision was my only explanation. My wife has that ability to focus exclusively on what she’s doing.

Last week I asked Lamppost Head to water a new row of strawberries I made from runners. (Yes, I let a few take root.)

“But Grandma’s right there. She’ll see me,” he whispered. She was picking beans 15 feet away from my new row. I told him to go ahead, and to be honest if she said anything.

He reported to me she said pleasantly, “Watering Grandpa’s strawberries, are you?”

“So you knew all along? I thought you’d be mad that I bought strawberries again,” I said when came home.

“You bought them? I figured somebody gave them to you. I would have been mad if I’d known that.”

(Fred Miller’s book of 100 stories, “Falling Under Honey’s Spell,” is $10, available locally at Connie’s Kitchen, Davis Bros. Pharmacies, Frank’s Pastry, Giant Eagle Calcutta, Museum of Ceramics, and Pottery City Antique Mall.)

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