Saturday, April 7, 2012

Under the Strawberry Hide

Free the Bulbs!

It's Spring Break, time for play, maybe a trip south for the cold, the old, the collegiate lemmings. 

Or, hours of bending, kneeling, and crawling along, ripping up a web of strawberry vines run amok. And though my spine's got the grindey-disk blues, my mind's deep-down satisfied. Weeding can do that.

The long bed running roadside was the first one I dug. The top edge cuts into the gravel, and mostly it didn't have much of what you'd call top-soil. Sandy clay. So I put herbs in as is but most everything else was planted with anything from a fist-full to a few gallons of whatever manure or bark-based compost was cheap at Home Depot at the time, and one year I mulched it with compost that was mostly nitrogen-sucking bark fiber.

Then one time down by some cranberry bogs, I saw this strawberry that grew on the road.  From off the shoulder, runners long-jumping onto asphalt, implanting roots, en-planting and growing into another team sending out runners onto that sunny country road. Soon enough, runners cross each other and red-strung web plays out over the colony. Plants branch like multi-headed giant millipedes (which infestation, incidentally, can be avoided by planting any Artemisia), and beneath that their roots tangle a tough horse-hair blanket.

Then there's the road. Except, the interstices are investigated by all manner of arthropods and microbia, including regular-headed millipedes. Pretty soon, the paltry bacterial stratum that had slowly been working on the tar hosts a mat of vegetation reaping photons enough to feed a host of other plants, fungi, and critters. Which poop, causing hyphae to send out web-forming runners to clean up. For every creature eating another, there is something else feeding on it's waste. The result of all this cleaning up is, ironically to some, dirt. Soil, a living layer, incorporating whatever road gravel it loosens from the matrix, as well as sands blown or washed in, leaves and twigs, rabbit pellets and deer hair, a crow feather. Anything that gets snagged in that red-runner web goes through this slow-motion grinder til it is soil.

Or until some guy happens by and cuts out a little mat and takes it home to plant in a roadside bed. Not really thinking of soil formation, but of strawberries. I teased apart the mat and spaced the plants in the bed. 

But it doesn't take long to learn that these plants just want to vine and entwine, not set still and make berries. That was fine, I figured, let them roam. All through the rest of the bed, up over the edge and into the roadside gravel, into the grass. The runners are so bright that it's easy to nip them off before they run into another bed where I don't want them.

Three or four years later, and the strawberry mat has run its course. They were good groundcover--tough and undemanding, abundant flowers, red leaves hanging through the Winter--but now they smother the camas and tulips and assorted plants venturing out for the Spring.  

So I bent down to start ripping. Thumb and forefinger pinch a rhizome, and pull it's rootfro from the rain-soft earth. Easy, but then you do it a thousand more times. Maybe more. A couple of wheelbarrel loads. Then collapse, just laying there with the mist dropping on you, surveying the bed.

Where there is soil. It always looks better in the Spring wet, but I see dozens of worms wiggling, waving, and peristalsis-ing on a crumbly black field. It was easy to feel how friable the soil was while pulling the weeds; roots 4 inches deep came up willingly. Whatever reluctance I'd had about removing perfectly functional ground cover imploded when I saw what lay beneath. Sweet happy soil, ready to receive something new.

The strawberry field may not have been forever, but it had a good run. Ripping it off quick like taking off a band-aid was the way to go. I could have piddled around, clearing one small section, or just continuing to clear little pockets for other specimens, but it would be bothersome, and it would have been hard to perceived the overall transformation and potential. I'd have missed things I planted long ago and forgot, which may never have poked up through the grizzled strawberry hide, and instead been drowned and ground down. Contributing to the soil, yes, but maybe the soil can do fine without it's mono-mat, and in its place the charms of new flowers and foods will have their day in the sun.

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